June 17, 2021
Written by 
Luke F. McCusker III

Sound and Proclamation (Part 3): Henry McShane's Bells, and Some Bats in Monongahela

Introduction and Ascent

A group of men gathered at First United Methodist Church, Monongahela, PA on Monday, July 6, 2020 to see the work of McShane Bell Foundry up close and personal. They were not alone, as several bats welcomed them into the belfry once they climbed the old steps. A glorious view of the town and adjoining river was experienced, but their remarkable set of bells stole the show. Here’s the story of the church and town that welcomed us.

Placing a full set of bells was an important event for a church, and a crowning achievement for First United Methodist Church of Monongahela (current name), initially formed in 1813 (see placard above).

Monongahela was where Methodism was founded in western Pennsylvania, within a town that was a shipping center. It sits next to the Monongahela River: an important thoroughfare which begins south of Morgantown, WV and then northward to Pittsburgh, where it links with the mighty Ohio River. Travel along the Ohio carried passengers and goods to Cincinnati, Louisville and Memphis. The river then joins the Mississippi, heading towards New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico.

Travel at the time was done on these rivers…the superhighways of the time for non-coastal cities and towns. Several towns along the Monongahela River produced both steamboats and barges, and foundries in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh supplied bells for steamboats to announce their presence to others afloat, or their arrival at city docks. Wooden barges were also built and launched, using the abundant wood of the region.

Crops, goods and passengers bound westward and southward were placed on both steamboats and barges, and an active shipping business resulted. Those simple barges were a product in and of themselves, as the wood was put to good use at the end of their run: used for building homes in New Orleans. These served the residents well until the flooding of Katrina devastated many homes built of wood from earlier days.

Ready access to markets was vital to many industries, including a large number of German farms nearby. The Irish also populated the region, mostly from Ulster. Many were Presbyterian weavers, and the abundant sheep and flax raised in the region were used to continue their trade in America. The shipping town of Monongahela flourished as a result.

Several denominations established churches for the growing population and benefitted from the prosperity of their members, including the town’s Methodist Episcopal Church. Its beginnings were within a non-denominational Sunday School class formed in 1810. Methodists began gathering as a denomination by 1813, and met in a series of modest settings. Growth eventually led the church to call its own pastor and build a more significant structure in 1834.

Methodists continued to flourish, and the need for a larger structure became apparent. Construction began on a larger building on Monongahela’s West Main Street. It was dedicated in 1873, just before the beginning of train service to the town.

The first locomotive arrived on July 4, 1874 and likely brought a single large bell (pictured below) from Pittsburgh’s Fulton Bell Foundry. The congregation lifted it into the church tower, and a single tone provided sound and proclamation to the region.

The bell was joined by other church “gingerbread”, including stained glass windows and an organ donated by Andrew Carnegie (pictured).

The significant structure and the features it included affirmed the denomination’s position of prominence in western Pennsylvania.

Henry McShane’s work continued into future generations of descendants and new owners, and was a remarkable part of the development of churches and denominations throughout America. Once a congregation decided to place an order for bells, arrangements had to be made for their shipping and installation, and a measure of training in their use. The building itself had to be remodeled and engineered for their placement, and a bell tower was usually constructed by the church for both the bells’ display and the sending of their bell’s peals over far distances.

Churches had various motivations for taking on such a large project, but historical records tell us that many hoped to proclaim their significant place and prominence. Churches were built, after all, to proclaim the gospel message among the people, and a significant structure, augmented by stained glass, pipe organs and a set of bells, drew people into a place where they experienced beauty and heard the message.

Church leaders often thought of these elements as part of the elevation of the town itself, giving prestige not only to the church, but also the community.

Charles E. Stevens purchased the set of bells for the Methodist congregation on the town’s main street, and received them with the assistance of the men and women of the Chimes Committee (pictured). The town and church itself were delighted by the display, and the local newspaper attributed the placement to the “Donor’s devotion to a glorious ideal” (Daily Republican, 11-25-1925).

There were several articles in the Daily Republican describing the arrival, installation and playing of the bells, and those articles (one pictured, from 11-28-1925) really expressed the delight of a town that received them and lined them up along West Main Street for all to see. Their beauty must have been mesmerizing to the residents of working class Monongahela.

Who wouldn't want to watch them being raised into the bell tower, and placed therein? It must have been magical; and every time those bells were rung for future generations, hundreds must have remembered that remarkable week in November, 1925.

An Unveiling of Sorts

On the snowy night of Wednesday, November 25, 1925 chimer M.H. Mettee of McShane Bell Foundry performed ten religious, romantic and patriotic selections at a special concert at the church, using hand levers and an electric keyboard. Westminster Peal, as per tradition, concluded the program. Two additional concerts were given on Thanksgiving Day and the Friday that followed.

More Modern Times

The series of bells and the structure that held them eventually needed a major refurbishment, and McShane Bell Foundry was called to do the job. They still do considerable business maintaining bells placed by their firm many generations ago.

Churches that consider this face a huge undertaking, as this restoration work can require hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs. These funds go towards scaffolding, engineering and the mechanical and structural work needed to secure and restore the bells and the tower where they have been placed.

Church leaders came to the difficult decision to restore their bells in time to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the denomination’s presence in Western Pennsylvania, celebrated in 2013.

Our group's recent visit to the church made us appreciate the remarkable work done by previous generations who worked for the McShane Bell Foundry, and the recent restoration they completed.

Many thanks to several who have contributed to this series of articles, including:

Staff of First United Methodist Church, Monongahela PA

Ethan Gamble, U.S.N.A.

Terry Necciai, Preservation Architect

C.C. Knobeloch, Photographer

Patrick Harnett, Artist

Maryland Historical Society

Mary A. and Stanley G. Piet, Early Catholic Church Records in Baltimore, Maryland 1782 through 1800 (Westminster, MD, Willow Bend Books), 2000.

Pastor Marty Bausman, First Church of the Nazarene, Washington PA

Cecilia Wright, Board Member of Irish Railroad Workers Museum

Kathi Brooks, former Museum Board Member

Ria Crocker, Museum Friend

St. Patrick Catholic Church, Dundalk, County Louth, Republic of Ireland

F.W. Webb Co.

http://www.mc-research.com/county-louth/emigrants/mcshane/mcshane.htm (accessed 8/10/2020)

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