PHOTO: The bell and clock tower atop Christ Episcopal Church in Shrewsbury
Next time you’re driving south on Route 35 and Shrewsbury Avenue, glance up to the left and say hi to the clock at the top of Christ Episcopal Church. It’s got quite a history of its own, in addition to being the timepiece at the top of that historic church built in 1769.
Actually, the history of the clock is not as old as the history of the church. It didn’t come into being until 1874, more than a century after the church was a vital part of the community. But it truly is a story in itself.
Before the clock tower, there was a cupola on the roof of the church; with the addition of the clock tower, the cupola was moved a bit to the west to make room. The tower itself has many levels, all of which are intriguing.
The bottom most level is two stories high on its own and expands the narthex to a most impressive size. The narthex is the gathering or welcoming spot where churchgoers gather before services or linger afterwards to share friendship.
The next level of the tower is the spot where the pendulum of the clock descends, next level up is where the gears and guts, the mechanism of the clock sit. Those are the parts that drive the hands and control the bells on the three clock faces in the tower. Above that is where the clock faces and the mechanism that actually moves the hands are. Then on the next to top is the cupola with the church bell inside. Atop all of this, looking over Shrewsbury and points beyond, is that beautiful spire of the church.
This is the second bell at the Church. The first was a churchyard bell that hung in a tree in the church yard. Old Eli, the second bell and so called to honor the Rev. Eli Wheeler who was instrumental in acquiring it, was case in France in 1788 and had hung in a convent in Santo Domingo. In Shrewsbury, it first hung in the oak tree in the church yard until the clock tower was complete.
A while back, something happened to the mechanism of the clock and the bell, both worked by the same mechanisms, and the clock stopped recording the time of day for motorists and passersby alike. Once it was repaired by the same company that has tended to the clock’s needs for years, it was once again the timepiece of the borough….the town clock, as many say.
And this past Fourth of July, as part of all the wonderful events at that historic Four Corners reminding us of Thomas Jefferson’s magnificent Declaration of Independence, some lucky winners of a lottery got tickets to climb the inner stairs of this very historic structure and see all the intriguing insides of the clock, the bell and the tower itself.
The lottery to select the winner was rather a playback of what the church and others like it have done for centuries….create unique events to raise money to pay for all the necessary repairs and upkeep that Sunday collections don’t always meet. In addition to fund raisers, there have also been very generous families who have kept churches, including this one, in their generosity.
Start with the Borden family of Shrewsbury, for instance. Frank Borden, a local resident, apparently started a fund raising campaign to raise the money to build the tower in the first place. Another famous local named, Major General Stewart VanVliet, was one of the first to contribute to that campaign, sending a note and $25 for “the clock fund.” Records show that VanVliet was a Quaker, not a member of the Christ Church, but he made the contribution because it was the church of his family. Borden’s son, William Lambert Borden, was a master craftsman and carpenter, and he headed up the construction team that built the tower.
That was apparently the first of many fund raising plans put into place over the decades to ensure the clock and its bell were always in working condition. There was a time in the 20th century, when funds were still being collected for improvements, that one of the counterweights for the bell broke and fell two stories. It was 1933, the counterweight weighed around a ton but happily, there were no injuries. It was around that time when the beloved Al Beadleston was Mayor of Shrewsbury and churchgoers appealed to local government for funds for bell repairs, arguing it really was as much a town bell as a church bell. Though Beadleston, who in the 1950s began the first of more than 20 years in the Assembly and State Senate, being one of few men to hold the top leadership positions in both houses, declined to use public funds for a church building, he nonetheless contributed $25 of his own to the project, so similar to Van Vliet the Quaker a century before.
There were other creative fundraisers….the Shrewsbury Community Club “Clock-faced Minstrels” who put on a performance that raised $600 for one, and the lottery to climb the tower the most recent.
It’s fixed now, running smoothly, tolling the hours, and still a vital part of a community that loves and appreciates its history.