BECKET — Slightly tilted, like the top hat on a man of high standing, the belfry of the old First Congregational Church here soon will be removed, reconstructed and placed back where it belongs.
By winter, the belfry’s historic bell once again will summon congregants to worship.
No one would dare ring that bell now.
Wood-boring beetles have ravaged sections of the 171-year-old church. The belfry, which juts up about 15 feet from the roofline, has been deemed unsafe. Piles of wood dust and large cavities carved into thick timber attest to that.
The belfry's reconstruction is the first of a two-part, $250,000 project that will include shoring up and replacing floor joists in the basement, also damaged by powderpost beetles. The church hopes to begin the joist work by spring.
Work on the belfry is expected to begin within two weeks. First, the belfry and bell will be removed by means of a crane. Then, reconstruction of the belfry will take place in the shop of Bancroft Custom Woodworks in Hancock. Then, the belfry and bell will be put back in place.
“It will look exactly the same when it’s finished,” said Jack Rodhouse, a member of the church who is helping to oversee the work.
“Only, it won’t leak,” said Rita Furlong, a church trustee and organist.
The church needs to raise about $150,000 on top of $100,000 that town voters approved in May for the project. The $100,000 came through the state's Community Preservation Act, a state-backed municipal tax assessed on home and business owners for preservation, saving open space, and encouraging recreation and affordable housing.
In addition to plant sales and community dinners, the church recently started an online fundraiser through GoFundMe. Church members were thankful that the musician Arlo Guthrie, who lives in the nearby town of Washington, promoted the fundraiser through his Facebook page.
“That was very considerate of him,” Rodhouse said.
“He’s a real community-minded guy,” Furlong said.
The church, located just off Route 8 in the neighborhood known as Becket Center, where the town originally was settled, sits beside a graveyard with tombstones dating to the Revolutionary War. Before heading to Lexington and Concord to fight the British, Colonial soldiers learned to march in battle step right here in the tiny historic center.
The church, built in 1850, is the third of its kind in the original center. The first two burned to the ground.
The belfry was an afterthought, built a decade or so later, “which is one of the reasons it’s sort of inadequate and not quite as sturdy as it should be,” Furlong said.
She said church records show that two men from the congregation went to Boston to pick up the bell, which originally was cast in the foundry started by the famous patriot Paul Revere.
“We have receipts for it and everything,” Furlong said.
Revere, who died in 1818, probably had no hand in this bell’s making.
Furlong said that not too long after the bell was installed, some boys climbed up to the choir loft to pull on the bell’s cord. When the hammer struck the bell, the bell cracked.
"Like that famous bell in Philadelphia," said Kathleen Rodhouse, Jack's wife.
“So, they then decided to take it to Albany to be recast, and they threw in 50 silver dollars to sweeten the tone and hopefully upgrade the quality of the metal so it wouldn’t crack again,” Furlong said.
It hasn’t cracked since.
But, the bell, all 800 pounds of it, hasn’t been struck since spring 2020.
When an engineer was brought in to assess the beetle damage, he untied the rope from the bell's hammer.
“He said, ‘You’re not going to use this,’” Kathleen Rodhouse recalled.
The church first discovered the beetle damage in 2018. First, the entire building had to be sprayed. After voter approval in 2020 to spend $15,000 in CPA money, in came the engineer, along with an architect.
Architect Jeff Penn, of Huntington, and engineer John Wallen, of Chesterfield, discovered that more than 50 percent of the wood in the building was hollowed out or damaged. The two men volunteered time and materials to install temporary supports as a stopgap to shore up the leaning belfry.
The church expects that the belfry reconstruction will take two to three months. In the meantime, the 50-member church will continue to raise money — “a huge undertaking,” Furlong said.
On Wednesday, the Rodhouses and Furlong stood inside the tin-paneled interior of the historic church, built in the plain-and-simple Greek Revival style.
They are proud of their bell. They are proud of their church, a gathering place in a hushed corner of the world. They are proud of the feature that makes this particular First Congregational Church different from most others.
Instead of clear glass windows, the glass here is colored and translucent, the result of one frustrated pastor having had enough of God's word needing to compete with God's creation.
"The farmers would sit in the pews and look out the windows instead of listening to the sermons," Kathleen Rodhouse explained.