Birthday bell: North Parish Church celebrates 375th anniversary

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Nov. 28—NORTH ANDOVER — Every time Paul Revere's bell rings in North Parish Church, it brings the past to life.

Installed in 1807, it was the 19th of 950 bells that Revere cast in his Canton foundry, and one of only 23 that survives today.

"It's seen a lot of history from its steeple overlooking the common," said Debb Putnam, who lives in Andover and has been a church member since 1987.

Along with ringing the hours of the day, the Revere bell announces weddings and memorial services, and is rung every year on the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Putnam said.

"So it's used, not just as a time piece, but it's used on significant occasions," she said.

But now there's a new bell in town, as Revere's bell was joined last month by a bell created by parish member Larry Elardo, who suspended it between columns outside in the garden.

"It's kind of perfect," Putnam said. "You have this big bell in the steeple, versus this smaller bell in the public space, but they have a similar purpose. They call our attention, and they are markers of time and memory and community."

That sense of community has been challenged by the pandemic, which delayed the exterior bell's installation for a year, after it was originally planned to coincide with the 375th anniversary of the church's founding on Oct. 24, 1645.

The church has company in that regard with the town as a whole, which originally planned to hold a gala for North Andover's 375th anniversary on Oct. 1, but has had to push that off until May 22, 2022.

But the church celebrates its birthday every year on Oct. 24 anyway, or the closest Sunday to it, so delaying the bell's dedication ceremony still made sense.

It was also an example of the spirit, which Putnam recently discussed with fellow parishioners, that has allowed the church to endure even longer than Revere's bell.

"There's so much history, and it has ebbed and flowed, and still it continues," she said. "That's kind of amazing. It does so by continually having to adapt to changing times, adapt to changing needs, changing beliefs, but through all of that, by needing to continue connecting, continue the community."

The dedication ceremony on Oct. 24 also coincided with the anniversary of Rev. Lee Bluemel's installation 22 years ago, in 1999, as the church's first female minister.

In addition, she is only the 17th person to occupy that leadership position in 376 years, and gave a sermon before the bell's dedication in which she held an imaginary meeting with all of her predecessors.

"I led into that by saying, 'We're going to have a service, and we're going to dedicate our bell,' and had one of them say, 'Is the Paul Revere broken?'" Bluemel said.

After explaining that it wasn't, she told the group that her parishioners had commissioned a new bell because "we wanted to create something to represent this community, today. So we invited people to bring an item that had meaning for them and which they could press into clay."

While the bell was originally molded in clay then cast in bronze, the posts that support it were made from slabs of clay that were rolled into columns and fired.

The things that parishioners pressed into the surfaces of the columns ranged from natural items like sea shells and pine cones, to personal tokens such as a wedding ring or piece of lace, to religious symbols from various traditions. Collectively, they reflect the fact that Unitarian Universalism is "what I call a big tent religion," Bluemel said.

"The sculptures on the two posts, the clay itself, really shows that inclusivity," she said.

The celebration after the sermon wasn't as big as the one they had planned before the pandemic, Putnam said, but it was still festive.

"We didn't get to have a birthday cake, but we did have bell-shaped, individually wrapped cookies, and that was fun," she said. "We had birthday hats on."

They also dedicated the bell using water that parishioners collect every September, bringing a vial to church that represents an important experience that they've had over the summer.

"The water gets collected and sterilized and we use that for dedication ceremonies or various rituals throughout the year," Putnam said. "So we had our holy water, and daisies we cut from our garden. Everyone was given a daisy and dipped it in water and anointed the bell."

Members of the parish also struck the bell with a wooden mallet, which was fashioned from the limb of a 100-year-old sycamore that stands behind the church.

"It looks like a club," Putnam said. "The youngest and oldest members in attendance were given an opportunity to ring the bell."

One thing that was evident from those strokes was that the new bell, like Paul Revere's, makes a wonderful sound.

"It has a beautiful tone," Putnam said. "It's rich. Depending on where you hit it, it has a slightly different tone, and it rings—it holds its tone—for quite a while."