May 18, 2009

Our Bell—Still Faithful After All These Years
by Pastor George Van Alstine

This will be the first in a series of Messenger articles that will highlight some historical facts to help us better appreciate the seventy-five years Altadena Baptist Church has stood as a Christian witness at the center of Altadena. In this issue, I will focus on the church’s bell.

If you climb with me into the church’s bell tower, you can see for yourself the impressive, 39-inch diameter cast bronze bell. You’ll be able to read the inscription on the side:

Van Duzen and Tift, Cincinnati
Buckeye Bell Foundry 1886

This was a chime and bell-making company that existed under different names from 1837 to 1950, over a hundred years. Our bell, cast in 1886, was made during the company’s best years. A few others made in that era still function, mostly in churches and firehouses in the east.

This particular bell made its way to the west coast, probably by Huntington’s Southern Pacific Railroad, less than twenty years after transcontinental rail travel became possible. The bell had been ordered for the newly built First Baptist Church in the center of the small town of Pasadena CA, just north of Los Angeles. In that same year, Pasadena was incorporated as a city, so that its residents could legally drive out the saloons which were starting to spring up. One of the first things the new city government did was to establish a volunteer fire department. After the bell was installed in the new Baptist Church, she began to do double-duty, calling people to worship on Sunday, and calling the volunteer firemen to fires the rest of the week. Unfortunately, the First Baptist Church building was itself not immune to fires, and it burned down sometime in the late 1890s.

The bell itself was rescued from the church’s ruins, according to records in our church vault, and was stored in the home of Mrs. Fannie Smith. An interesting recent connection confirmed this. In 1994, a man came to the church and asked if that was the same old bell. He then told me that he remembered, as a kid, seeing it stored in his grandmother’s attic.

The next chapter in our bell’s history started when a group of Altadena people began meeting in 1902 for a Sunday afternoon Bible study led by a Pasadena minister who came up weekly to establish this mission work. They became the first church in the rural community that became known as Altadena. They soon identified with the local Methodist association and bought the property on the corner of Calaveras Street and Santa Clara (now El Molino) Avenue. In 1908, they built the beautiful white woodframe church that you have probably seen pictured in the ABC entryway. This was on the area that is now the church lawn. Somehow the congregation learned about the bell stored after the First Baptist fire. They purchased it and moved it into the new facility.

Our bell was again active in its outreach ministry. The Methodists used her to remind themselves and the church’s neighbors about God’s good news from 1908 to 1934.

In 1934, the group of believers who formed Altadena Baptist Church bought the building from the Methodists. The bell came with the transaction, and now she proclaimed the gospel with a Baptist accent. From 1934 until 1972, our bell signaled God’s love to the congregation and the community. This era of her history ended when, after the 1971 Sylmar earthquake, the L.A. County inspectors ruled that damage made the building unsafe for public use. In 1972, the old church building was torn down, and the bell was moved into a brand-new bell tower, which had been constructed under the guidance of ABC Deacon Bud Walsworth. Ever since then, the tower has been the visual symbol of ABC’s varied ministries in the community.

Unfortunately, we have in recent years neglected the old bell. We haven’t had a consistent plan to ring her before Sunday services or at other special occasions. She’s become a pigeon roost, which is nice for the pigeons, but not for us. And for the past year her rope has been broken, so that it’s been impossible for our bell to continue her ministry that has lasted for well over a century. We are repentant, and we promise to make sure that our bell is cleaned up and restored to working order, so that she can help us welcome you to ABC’s 75th Anniversary Celebration.