Ringing the Bells

A deep, full-bodied gong expanded through the small basement of the Zion Reformed Church in Allentown, PA, after the docent tapped the clapper against the replica Liberty Bell. Depending on the source, the US government commissioned 53 or 57 replica Liberty Bells from a French company in the 1950s. One was kept in France and the rest were distributed to each of the US states and territories. Most were put on display somewhere in the State Capitals. Pennsylvania was one of the exceptions.

During the Revolutionary War, the Liberty Bell and other bells from Philadelphia were hidden in the Zion Reformed Church’s basement in Allentown to protect them from the British troops. Now the basement is a museum to the Liberty Bell, featuring Pennsylvania’s replica bell along with artifacts from the Revolutionary War. The replica bell is whole with the famous crack depicted by a line drawn with a Sharpie marker. As a result, there isn’t the concern that ringing the bell will worsen the crack and perhaps split the bell in two as there is with the original. Still the docent must tap the bell very gently in demonstrations as it was designed to be heard 20 miles away. In the small basement, the full sound could cause auditory damage.

Most days in Pittsburgh, I can hear the neighborhood Catholic church bell chime the hours. Under the right weather conditions, I can hear a church bell from another neighborhood. The Catholic church is within a mile of my house. The other church is up to 2 miles away. Though I don’t subscribe to any organized religion, hearing these bells gives me a feeling that I am part of a community. The bells of the Allegheny County Courthouse downtown inspire a similar feeling of belonging when they ring at noon and 5:00 pm. These sounds create a shared experience between me and all the other people within earshot of the ringing bell.

The difference in capacity of the Liberty Bell and the bell of the local Catholic church reflects the style of living at the time they were established. In the days of the Liberty Bell, most of the country was agrarian with people spread out on farms often at least 20 miles away from the nearest town or hamlet. Fast forward to the 1910s, when the local Catholic church was established in a growing, dense urban environment. Most parishioners lived in the same neighborhood as their church, not more than a mile or two away. Today, in post-suburbanization US, people live in different neighborhoods or even towns from where they worship or work. In such a world, there isn’t one civic or religious institution that everyone within earshot subscribes to. I am glad to live in a neighborhood where there still is a bell to remind us every so often to look up from our digital devices to see and hear the world immediately in front of us.

Erie Churches

Erie has a variety of attractive church buildings.  As I walked around admiring them, I was surprised to see that they were all still used as churches.  I did not find a single adaptively reused church building.  Given Erie’s location, relatively close to Cleveland, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh, I assumed it had similar significant population loss creating a need to either abandon, demolish or adapt some church buildings.  It turns out, that at least on the county level, this assumption was false.  Since 1900, the population of Erie County has grown every decade, except from 1980 to 1990 when there was a slight (1.5%) population loss, from 98,509 to 280,843 (2000’s population).  Allegheny County (Pittsburgh’s county), on the other hand saw growth from 775,058 in 1900 to 1,628,587 in 1960 after which the population has declined steadily to 1,223,348 in 2010.

I could not find statistics for the population change of the city of Erie; it is possible that there was a different trend within the city.  There were signs of abandonment and decay in other buildings and aspects of the town.  Yet the churches are still intact and appear to be thriving.  In fact, one of the larger churches was undergoing a major renovation while I was there.

Whatever the reason for the churches’ continued use, I enjoyed my treasure hunt chasing down as many steeples as I could in two hours:


St. Patrick's Church 1903

Russian Old Believers Church of the Holy Trinity 1984

Russian Orthodox Church of the Nativity of Christ (Old Rite) 1987


St. Peter Cathedral 1872

Cathedral School

St. Paul's United Church of Christ


Methodist Church

First United Presbyterian Church of the Covenant 1929