Bells mark 150th anniversary of slavery's end

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Norwich - posted Wed., Jan. 2, 2013
The Rev. Nancy Forsstrom in the belfry of Central Baptist with the church's historic bell. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.
The Rev. Nancy Forsstrom in the belfry of Central Baptist with the church's historic bell. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.

In 1863, the bell in the Central Baptist Church belfry rang out the news of President Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. This New Year’s Day, newly restored, it did so again to mark the proclamation’s 150th anniversary.

The historic bell was joined by bells in steeples across the city. Norwich historian Dale Plummer, chairman of the Emancipation Proclamation Commemoration Committee, said at press time that more than half of the city’s 19 churches had pledged to participate, and that most others had informally agreed as well. “We’ve been working on this for two years. It should be really great. I’m looking forward to having this happen,” Plummer said last week.

Among the participating churches were Grace Church, Park Congregational Church, Cathedral of St. Patrick, the National Spiritualist Church, St. Joseph, Sacred Heart of Taftville, Sacred Heart of Norwichtown, Taftville Congregational Church, and St. Nicholas and Holy New Martyrs Russian Orthodox churches. The City Hall bell and the carillon of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church also sounded.

The event was intended to repeat the original 1863 event marking Lincoln’s proclamation freeing the nation’s enslaved African-Americans. Then-Norwich Mayor James Lloyd Greene ordered the city’s bell to sound for one hour on Jan. 1, starting at noon, and a 100-gun salute to be fired. The canon barrage was scheduled to be re-enacted too, in Howard Brown Park, with four Civil War re-enactment units and six big guns. “That should be quite amazing,” said Plummer.

Besides the bells in church steeples, the new bell cast in the city last summer by the Verdin Bell Company’s foundry on wheels was brought out in front of City Hall and rung as well. Plummer said that members of the public were invited to take turns ringing the bell. “We’re hoping some of the children who were there when we cast the bell, and who handed off ingots, will come and be able to ring the bell,” Plummer said.

Central Baptist’s 170-year-old bell, which weighs 1,800 pounds, was cast in 1841 at the Holbrook bell foundry in Massachusetts, said David Warfield, the church’s music minister. The company’s founder, Major George Holbrook, apprenticed at the craft of casting with Paul Revere. The original bell came to Norwich by train and was installed at the church’s original location, then moved with the church to its current site on Union Square. It’s one of the oldest, if not the oldest, bell in the city, he said.

The bell had been silent for more than five years, said Central Baptist’s pastor, the Rev. Nancy Forsstrom. Concerns about the belfry’s stability led to a recent restoration project, in which the bell tower was reinforced and an electronically-triggered striking mechanism was installed, which allowed the bell to be struck externally, rather than having to swing in place to ring.

The project was timed to allow the historic bell to repeat history on Jan, 1, 2013. Forsstrom said that the bell rang again for the first time in five years on the Sunday before Christmas.

Besides the bell-ringing and the cannon barrage, plans for the commemoration included a program of historical tableaux at Slater Museum’s auditorium, entitled "This Glorious Day." Participants were to include re-enactors portraying Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln and Mayor Greene, as well as state troubadour Tom Callinan of Norwich, singing his ode to the bells of Norwich, and the choir of the city’s Evans Memorial AME Zion Church performing gospel songs.

The commemorative bell, housed temporarily inside City Hall, will eventually hang from a permanent tower in the hall’s courtyard, said Plummer. Ground should be broken this spring for that project and the tower should be ready for dedication on “Juneteenth” 2013, which commemorates the date on which far-flung slaves received the delayed news of their emancipation.

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