Buried bell to ring again
BY PAT FARNELLI
After being buried for 65 years, an historic church bell will toll again at the spot where it was last seen, when it fell during a fire from a tower into the recesses below a beloved Catholic Church near Lawton.
The bell will be rededicated on Memorial Day.
Gerald “Jerry” Guiton, 79, remembers hearing the bell ring before services as a child and young man.
He attended grade school just across the street, where the schoolhouse is only a memory now.
On a Sunday afternoon in February, 1947, the old wood frame church caught fire, probably from the old coal furnace in the basement. Many came and watched the fire after news spread that the old church was burning.
“Owing to the roads being blocked, no fire apparatus was available, and in a short time, the structure was burned to the ground,” a news article of the time reads.
The church was built in 1909 on ground dedicated by the late James W. Flynn. It was dedicated in November of that same year by the late Right Rev. Michael J. Hoban, bishop of Scranton.
The 1947 article noted, “The building was partially covered by insurance, and as yet it has not been decided if it will be rebuilt.”
Guiton, who lives with his wife Jackie on Lane Road in Lawton, said that he has always wished he could retrieve the bell, but until recently did not have the means to do so.
Guiton and his wife have put together an album of old photos and memorabilia about the church and the bell, and his wife has done some research into similar bells of the era as well as researching parish members of that era.
There are photos of the old church, before and after the fire. There is also a photo of a priest and a small group of parishioners, standing outdoors where they had built a stone altar with a crucifix, in the spot where the church had once stood.
Of those in the group, only Jerry Conboy is still alive.
The priest in the photo, Father Donald Fallon, is honored with a plaque on the stone altar. While working alone, outside in a cemetery in the parish on a cold winter day, Father Fallon fell from a ladder to his death.
“He was a great priest,” Guiton reflects.
When gas royalties made his retirement a little more comfortable, he decided to take a gamble and try to unearth the old cast iron bell, which he had been told was buried with the remains of the building.
He looked at the church blueprints, and determined where the bell should have fallen, if it indeed was still there.
“When we were making plans, Jerry Conboy drove by on his four-wheeler and told us that while he was watching the fire from the gravestones next to the church, he saw the bell drop right into the basement,” Guiton said. “He was standing right about here.”
Guiton points out an impressive pink granite headstone that has several cracks in the side facing the spot where the church once stood. “That damage is from the heat of the fire. This is probably the finest gravestone here, and the one that suffered the most damage.”
He said that Conboy stood at that spot watching the fire until the heat was too much for him.
Guiton’s son used a metal detector to locate the bell, and when it signaled something large, they stepped aside for the hired equipment.
Darren Small of Birchardsville did the excavation work with his backhoe.
“He did an excellent job, and when we located the bell, he very delicately got underneath it and lifted up the bell, which saved us a lot of digging,” Guiton said.
The bell weighed about 500 pounds, so getting it completely out of the ground was a big help.
“The whole process from start to finish only took him about 20 minutes,” Guiton said.
Small leveled the ground where the job was finished, as well.
Guiton was amazed to find out that the bell was really only 18 inches to two feet beneath the surface, not ten or more feet below ground at the bottom of the basement. “I was totally shocked!” he said.
The bell was encrusted with “schlag,” or rock hard mineral deposits, some of which was ash from the fire, and some of which was from the iron reacting to the soil in which it was buried. This crust began to chip away after it was unearthed, but the stubborn areas needed to be sandblasted.
Still, it was in much better shape than expected. Guiton said he was sure it had to be broken in pieces.
Mark Magnotti did the sandblasting at his shop on Post Pond Road, and also straightened the rod from which the original clapper hangs.
The yoke was broken away on both sides, and says 30 on it, referring to the diameter of the bell in inches. There is a date inside, which says either 1839 or 1889.
Guiton said that the church plans note that the bell was donated by parishioners, but there is no reference to where it was manufactured or purchased.
There is also a narrow crack, which Guiton says adds character, “like the Liberty Bell’s.”
After the surface was clean, Mike Molenko painted it at his body shop in Brooklyn, with a special paint that he says will last almost forever.
Randy Long built the bell tower in which the
bell was installed, and is finishing the roof with cedar shakes.
He heard Guiton talking about the bell, and said that if he was able to dig it up, he would build a structure of some type to house it.
Guiton held him to his promise, and Long’s charming little tower looks like it belongs in the lovely rural setting, near the crucifix topped altar, in the center of the country cemetery.
The bell will be rededicated by Father Casimir Stanis at the Memorial Day Mass at St. John’s Cemetery on May 27.