Covering Louisiana

Jan 19, 2011 3:08 PM

Houma Church Charred Remains Lead to New Revelations

HOUMA, La. (AP) - Recovery of the St. Matthew's Episcopal Church bell recently prior to the toppling of the burned sanctuary's charred remains led to new revelations about the church's history.

The Bell from St. Matthew's Episcopal Church was recovered from the rubble of the church. The bell came from the Meneely and Kimberly Foundry and was presented to the church by Charles Morgan in 1872.

But closer examination of the bell - which is believed to have tolled atop an even older church demolished more than a century ago - reveals links to history far from Louisiana, and poses new mysteries yet to be solved.

Fire destroyed the church and its nearby school building the morning of Nov. 11. Although the cause has not officially been determined, church officials say they think it was electrical.

The cypress building had stood since 1892, built to replace a brick structure built in 1858, which had also been damaged by fire.

The bell was removed as contractors began clearing the site. Its inscription revealed that it was cast in 1872 by the Meneely and Kimberly company in Troy, N.Y., and that it was a gift from Charles Morgan. Church officials don't know whether he is the same Charles Morgan for whom Morgan City was named, or if so why he would donate a bell. But records are still being sought and checked.

Since it dated to 1872, what was immediately surmised was that the bell would have been from the original church - the brick one built in 1858 - enhancing its historic importance.

"It connects you with this vitality that has such deep, deep roots," said the Rev. Craig Dalferes, pastor of the church, after being informed of the historical tidbits. "I find myself being in these peoples' shoes, trying to imagine how they got the bell up there. it's kind of like barnacles off the history. It is important to have that sense of continuity with the past and realize that vitality is still there."

The first church, built in 1858, had its own bell. According to local historical accounts, it was the gift of Ruffin Barrow, who donated the land on which the church has stood since that time.

Barrow owned six local plantations including Myrtle Grove, Caillou Grove, Residence and Crescent Farm, and also operated a canal.

According to newspaper accounts, Barrow also donated the church's first bell, which he named "Susanna Roberta."

As the congregation grew so did the animosity between the north and south, eventually breaking out into the Civil War. One of the church's fathers, the Rev. Leonidas Polk, attained the rank of general in the Confederate army. The Rev. George W. Stickney, St. Matthews' first rector, left in 1861 to serve as a Confederate chaplain. Other church members, according to historic accounts, were firmly devoted to the Confederate cause.

The timeline of the church's history and events that unfolded during the war lend special significance to the question of what happened to the bell named Susanna Roberta, and why a new one was donated in 1872.

But the 1872 bell - the one now being safe-kept by the St. Matthew's Episcopal Church family while plans for a new sanctuary are developed - has had some interesting brushes with history itself, beginning with its birth.

The bell was created at the Meneely and Kimberly bellworks in Troy, N.Y., not far from the state capital of Albany, more than 120 miles north of New York City.

The original Meneely firm was established by bellmaker Andrew Meneely in 1829, according to P. Thomas Carroll, director of the Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway museum in Troy.

After his death in 1851, two sons, Edward and George, took over. A younger son, Clinton, was not involved and ended up fighting in the Union army.

When he returned, Clinton Meneely went into the bell business himself, founding the Meneely and Kimberly operation. His brothers later sued him, arguing that his use of the Meneely name violated their trademark. Appeals courts sided with Clinton Meneely, and maintained that you can't violate trademark by using your own name for a company or product. The principal established by the case, legal historians said, is still taught in law schools today.

The Houma bell of 1872 was made by Clinton Meneely and his partner, George Kimberly. The sweeps, similar to molds, from which the bell was struck are still on display at the Hudson Mohawk museum.

Carroll located the firm's ledger book for 1872 and said the bell was born June 24, 1872. It was not purchased directly from Meneely but from the Fairbanks company, a firm in New York that acted as an agent.

The bell, Carroll said, is likely 78 percent copper and 22 percent tin.

"A lot of people call them bronze bells," he said, explaining that the mixture used for the bell is different from the formula generally used for bronze.

A far more famous bell was created at the same bellworks a few years later, Carroll said.

The Centennial bell - commissioned as a replacement for the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, which was sent on a road trip to mark the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence - was made in the same room as the St. Matthew's bell, and likely by the same craftsmen.

Now hanging in Independence Hall, the Centennial, at 13,000 pounds, is much bigger than the Houma bell, which weighs 432 pounds. The Centennial was made partly from four melted cannons, two from the American Revolution - American and British - and two from the Civil War, confederate and federal.

The connection between cannons and bells might figure into the history of the original bell at St, Matthew's - the one R.R. Barrow named Susanna Roberta. But so far an exhaustive check of records reveals only circumstantial evidence.

In 1862, not long before the federal takeover of New Orleans, General P.G.T. Beauregard issued an appeal for plantation bells to be used for Confederate cannon.

Beauregard was a close associate of the Episcopal "Battling Bishop," Leonidas Polk, an early St. Matthew's leader.

There are reports in some history essays that the response to Beauregard's plea for bells was far-ranging, and that as many as 800 bells ended up in New Orleans from as far as Shreveport. The church bells were among those given up for the cause.

Bells from churches and plantations were, in fact, given up from many places in the South, and not just in Beauregard's Mississippi region.

What is also clearly known is that Union Gen. Benjamin "Beast" Butler, shortly after his occupation of New Orleans in 1862, came upon bells meant to be used for cannon and seized them, shipping them north for auction in Boston.

The New York Times reported on Aug. 1, 1862, that all manner of bells "presented to the rebel government to be cast to cannon, but were captured at New Orleans and confiscated," numbered 418 at an East Boston wharf.

The correspondent wrote that one was cast in France, another from the First Presbyterian Church in Shreveport. Nothing is mentioned of St. Matthew's in that account.

The fate of the original St. Matthew's bell may never be known, though the answer could lie in church archives being processed at Nicholls State University and unavailable for viewing, or in some other collection. It remains a historical mystery.

The future of the 1872 Meneely bell is another matter.

Church officials have already said that when a replacement to the burned sanctuary is built, that bell will hold a place of honor and ring once again.

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