Every day we Annapolitans walk, drive by, work and play on hundreds of years of Western history. Our city is an old, old city and one that has played an important role in the life of our nation even before it was conceived. But how many of us know more about our rich heritage other than a few well-worn anecdotes? This Place Through Time is The Sound’s new weekly feature that tells the story of our ancient city through the words and pictures of Annapolis’ own historians, one chapter at a time.
The newest working church bell in Annapolis can be found at the First Presbyterian Church on Duke of Gloucester Street. The design of the present steeple, which was built in 1948, called for a bell, but none was installed until about 1976 when a couple in the congregation donated a bell to the parish. This electrical bell rings before Sunday services as well as for other religious ceremonies, such as funerals and weddings.
The earliest church bell in town, a gift to the parish from Queen Anne of England, hung in the first St. Anne’s Church, whose building specifications included a “Strong Cubalo [cupola] or Turrett to hang a Large Bell in.” This is probably the bell that rang in 1704 to call the House of Delegates to its afternoon sessions, but the church belfry to hold the bell was not completed until some time after 1706. Queen Anne’s bell traveled back to England about 1759 for repairs and then returned to Annapolis. This bell was lost in the fire that destroyed the second St. Anne’s Church in 1858. George Wells, president of Farmer’s Bank and a former vestryman of St. Anne’s, spent more than $1,000 to provide a replacement when the tower and spire of the new church were completed in 1866. The parish purchased its new tolling bell from the Meneely Bell Foundry in New York. In 1922 the church added a set of three chimes, made by the McShane Bell Foundry in Glen Burnie, in memory of John Wirt Randall, an Annapolis lawyer who served on the church vestry for thirty-seven years. The melody “Westminster Chimes” rings on the quarter hour. Until the late 1950s or early 1960s the sexton rang the bells using ropes, but these bells, too, are now operated electrically.
The largest complement of bells is the four that hang in the bell tower of St. Mary’s Church on Duke of Gloucester Street. The oldest, dating to 1853, originally hung from four poles located in front of the first parish church. This bell was also made by the Meneely Bell Foundry and was donated by parishioner Col. James Boyle, a former mayor of Annapolis. In 1859, the Meneely firm sold the parish three additional bells which were installed with the older bell in the tower of the present church, which was completed in 1860. The bells, named Maria Joseph, Alphonsus Teresia, Michael, and Gabriel, range in size from 24″ (the 1853 bell) to 49″ for the largest, which weighs 2,100 lbs. This last bell has an electric “toller” device that is used for funerals. Until 1957, the bells were rung by hand, with ropes that extended through the belfry floor to the middle level of the tower; since that year the bells have been rung electrically.
There are several other churches and former churches in downtown Annapolis but none of them have church bells. These include First Baptist Church, Mt. Moriah AME Church (Banneker-Douglass Museum), Asbury United Methodist Church, First Church of Christ Scientist, and St. Anne’s chapel at Prince George and East Streets.
Sources: Dean Johnson (First Presbyterian Church), Shannon McDowell (St. Anne’s Church), and Robert Worden (St. Mary’s Church), and Jane McWilliams for their assistance.
About the author:
Jean Russo is a native New Yorker who has lived in Maryland for many years. She has a Ph.D. in colonial history from The Johns Hopkins University, works part time for the Maryland State Archives and Historic Annapolis Foundation, and does volunteer and freelance work for most of the historical entities in town and in the Four Rivers Heritage Area. She is co-editor of Colonial Chesapeake Society and The Diary of William Faris . . . An Annapolis Silversmith. Ms. Russo is a founding member of the Annapolis History Consortium.
The Annapolis History Consortium is an informal organization of professional and amateur historians who meet about ten times a year to discuss issues, places, and events pertaining to area history. The more than one hundred members of the Consortium’s online group discuss issues and answer questions online.