Bell may ring again in one of New England’s oldest stone churches

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EAST HAVEN, CT — Heidi Manley confidently climbs the ancient stairs, whose original handrails were indentations deep enough in quarried stone centuries old to cling to. She makes her way through the dark passage to the top of the steeple and steeple, 196 feet above the ground, of the Old Stone Church.

Manley, who “grew up” in the church, is now its office manager. A guide who knows a lot about its history and traditions, she leads Patch to the top of the tower, which houses the now silent bell.

A small, timber-framed meeting house in 1711, now more than 300 years later, the historic church that towers over East Haven, is in need of repairs to the steeple and bell, valued at $100,000. A campaign is underway to collect this money, and it is only a third of the way to reach the goal, being helped in ways big and small.

Find out what’s happening in East Havenwith free real-time Patch updates.

East Haven teenager Grace Bast started a GoFundMe as part of a school project to support repairing the steeple and to date has raised $950. To donate to Bast’s fundraiser, click here.

And One World Roasters of East Haven created a special community coffee blend to help raise funds for the restoration project. Read this story here.

Find out what’s happening in East Havenwith free real-time Patch updates.

Church pastor Mark Pilletere said the structure of the tower itself is good, it is the exterior that needs fixing. And, the bell clapper, the church recently learned, needs to be repaired, hence its silence.

Nearly three months into fundraising, he said, “we’re doing well.” But whatever amount the church raises — it has applied for state grants and is awaiting a response — the work will begin, “whether we have the money or not.”

“We will figure out what we can do once this starts,” he said.

Described as a “church without borders”, it has a congregation that Pilletere wants larger, but includes members from East Haven, New Haven, Branford, Wallingford, Cheshire, Hamden, Meriden and as far away as Berlin in the county of Hartford.

When the church was established centuries ago, the city borders were not what they are today. For example, what is now the annex section of New Haven was originally part of East Haven. Manley said that in the 18th century church members “crossed the Quinnipiac River and went to the Central Church on the Green in New Haven.” They crossed on foot, in a carriage or on horseback, and she said, it “took a long time to get there”.

Old stone church, steeped in history and traditions

A property listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it was originally known as the First Ecclesiastical Society of East Haven before being called the First Congregational Church. Now colloquially known as the Old Stone Church, the congregation was founded and organized in a 20-by-16-foot frame building in the fall of 1711. Manley said the building was constructed of lumber ship.

“When they came from England, they dismantled their ships and used this timber to build the church,” she noted.

Jacob Heminway (modified to include a ‘g’, it is now spelled Hemingway) was ordained a minister. It should be noted that pre-1755 records were not kept, but what is known is that early church members included names recognized today in East Haven and New Haven: Tuttle, Thompson, Farnham, Townsend, Forbes and Tyler.

Over several decades, if not centuries, the structure that was the original meeting house would evolve.

In 1769 it was decided that the church should be built from stone, red sandstone quarried from the nearby hills of Fair Haven and oyster beds for mortar, harvested from the Quinnipiac River.

Designed and built from 1772 by George Lancraft, with congregants and members of the Quinnipiac tribe the laborers, according to church history, in 1774, at a cost of approximately $12,000, the meeting house “has been approximately completed”.

The whole city turned out for the dedication in September of that year.

In 1797, a “small and graceful bell tower above the belfry” was added and a clock was installed in the belfry tower.

In 1850, another transformation, interior and exterior, created the church that we see today. Originally lit by whale oil lamps, Old Stone Church was the first church in Connecticut to be heated by steam, according to church history. In 1895, it acquired its first pipe organ.

But before the 200th anniversary, an inspection revealed the steeple was unsafe and needed a $150,000 renovation. Without that kind of money, it was the community and nearby churches that raised the funds, shaken up by a $50,000 state grant, that helped repair the steeple.

Over the years, regular inspections of the bell tower have shown that it is in good condition. Now however, exterior repairs are needed. And a paint job by a “steeplejack that will sit and swing from the top of the steeple on a rope and plank,” Pilletere said. And some exterior stones need to be repointed as well as the replacement of the roof slate.

But it is the “rare” bell, rung for centuries and now silent, that also needs repairs. The bell itself is steeped in rich history. Cast in 1798 by James Cochran and Gameliel Fenton of New Haven, the story goes that “silver dollars were thrown into the molten material as it was cast to give it a silver ring”.

According to the 170-year-old Verdin Bell and Clock Company in Cincinnati, Ohio, “it’s the first Cochran & Fenton bell they’ve ever seen.” And, it should be noted that Paul Revere made the toll hammer.

Support the Steple Fund

The Old Stone Church has been East Haven’s meeting house for centuries, including the site of community and civic events and meetings.

The Old Stone Church Early Learning Center is a non-profit, non-sectarian school celebrating over 50 years of service to East Haven. Located in the education wing of the church and operated by the Old Stone Church Board of Finance, Buildings and Grounds, it is licensed by the state Office of Early Childhood Education. His thrift store opened its doors almost 40 years ago. The shop donates items to community charities and its proceeds go to the church’s general fund.

A myriad of fundraisers have already been undertaken, including a dinner and cabaret in December 2021.

To donate to the Bast GoFundMe steeple repair, click here.

To buy One World Roasters from East Haven’s Old Stone Church Community Coffee Special Blend, click here.

Or visit the Old Stone Church website here for more information.

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