By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Tourism boosters in the town of East Haddam, Connecticut, are hitting a stumbling block as they vie to capitalize on what some believe is a milestone anniversary for the steeple bell at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church.
The problem: St. Stephen’s believes the town might be wrong when it claims the bell, marked “ano de 815” on one side, was in fact cast 1,200 years ago.
The Rev. Adam Yates, rector of St. Stephen’s, is “increasingly unconfident about it,” he said, especially as he studies experts’ analyses, which have piled up in a file for more than a century. The congregation used to tout the bell as an ancient treasure, but no more.
“We’ve been kind of backing away from that claim,” Yates said. “We’re not pushing, Come to St. Stephen’s and see the Western Hemisphere’s or North America’s oldest bell.”
But the Town of East Haddam has other ideas. Promotional brochures and guides to town history promote the bell as a 1,200-year-old tourist attraction, conveniently located next to the Nathan Hale Schoolhouse.
“It was cast in 815 by Corales,” said Karl Stofko, historian for the town of East Haddam. “It was cast in Spain. It states this on the bell itself. As far as we know, this is the oldest one, date-wise, in existence in the Americas.”
Having an anniversary event might help the local tourism economy, but the congregation has no plans for such fanfare. Those who visit will find no plaque, no formal tour. Instead the people of St. Stephen’s are trying to walk a fine line between letting a local legend keep its charming appeal and taking pains not to perpetuate it.
According to Stofko, the bell was cast for a Spanish monastery and was seized almost 1,000 years later by Napoleon’s army. By the mid-1830s, it was serving as ballast on a ship bound for New York, where a businessman from East Haddam bought it at auction and later gave it to St. Stephen’s. If Stofko’s account is accurate, then the bell likely would be the Western Hemisphere’s oldest.
For more than a century, however, experts who have examined the bell have doubted claims about its age. As early as 1900, campanologist Arthur Nichols concluded that “if this bell is dated from the ninth century, it is inconceivable that its lettering should be otherwise than in Latin.” He believed it was part of a set, but not an ancient one.
“This date records the birth of the saint to whom the bells as a whole are dedicated,” he writes in his assessment. Another theory holds that it was made in 1815 but the “1” before the “8” got rubbed out.
Though Yates doubts the 815 dating, he gladly shows visitors the bell and tells them the tale of its origins in Medieval Spain. “We’re not really sure how old it is,” he tells them.
“This is one of those things that has a life of its own beyond the church and in the town at large or even the surrounding communities,” Yates said. “Somehow the story got out there, and it’s a good story, so it needs to be retold and it perpetuates, even though we’re not pushing it anymore.”
Stofko sees no need for qualifiers. He dismisses the idea that the bell might have been made after 815. Could it have been a reproduction? No, he says, because no one would have had a motive for casting a replica of a ninth-century bell.
“There have been one or two people … who challenged that the bell is really that old,” Stofko said with a chuckle. “There’s always going to be people like that.”