Historic Mon City belfry to be restored

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MONONGAHELA – Members of First United Methodist Church revisited the building’s belfry three years ago while considering having its valuable bank of bells polished for an upcoming celebration.


The congregation wanted to complete a signature project for the church’s 200th anniversary this year, but its members soon realized upon inspection of the bells that “they needed more attention than we knew,” said the Rev. Ronald E. Fleming.


“We are committed to maintaining those bells,’ said Fleming, pastor of the stately church at 430 W. Main St., which is embarking on a nearly $400,000 bell tower restoration project.


The 11 McShane bells were installed in the church under a 1925 gift of $200,000 from local lumber mill owner Charles E. Stephens after the building’s steeple was destroyed in a lightning strike that also threatened to topple the brick tower. The bells weigh between 525 and 3,000 pounds each, and contain 80 percent copper and 20 percent tin. They were manufactured by McShane Bell Foundry of Glen Burnie, Md. No other church in Southwestern Pennsylvania is home to such a collection that still chime on the quarter hour.


Now, more than 80 years later, the tower has again come under threat of collapse.


The weight of its copper-tiled roof is forcing the belfry’s four walls to shift outward, causing the masonry to crack and erode to the point where some of it needs to be replaced, Fleming said.


A study was undertaken that showed it would cost as much to remove the bells as it would to restore the structure housing them, he said.


“They have been ringing in this community for almost 100 years. When the bells go down (for repairs) we get calls from people,” he said.


One study suggested that the wood frame holding the bells in place had rotted to the point that it was no longer safe enough to support them. That engineer proposed replacing the wood with a steel frame and rebuilding the entire tower.


Church member Terry Necciai, a Philadelphia architect and preservation consultant, was invited to review that plan and he recommended seeking a second opinion, the church states on its website. That led to the hiring of Suzanne Pentz, a Washington, D.C., steeple frame engineer who has worked on Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Fleming said.


She inspected the wood in the belfry by drilling holes into it using a bit the size of a sewing needle that created an electronic mapping of the resistance it met as it entered the structure. Pentz concluded the wood is solid and reliable.


“We have done our homework,” Fleming said. “She made us aware that rather than ripping everything out we needed to do a restoration.”


Bids were opened Jan. 7, and the work is expected to be completed within five months. The church also is launching a campaign to raise money to finance the project.


For additional information, visit: http://fumcmon.com.


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