East Aurora Advertiser Columnist Rick Ohler writes about the history of the bell that now rings at Nativity Lutheran Church.
By now, most of us have noticed the handsome bronze bell outside Nativity Lutheran Church on East Main Street and perhaps heard its melodious peal on Sunday mornings. Although it sits under a brand new, illuminated shelter, secure in its wooden yoke atop a concrete and decorative aggregate platform, and even though it is triggered by a remote control device near the pulpit, you might suspect that the more than half-ton behemoth is, itself, far from new. You’d be right. And if you thought that the bell’s curriculum vitae makes a good story, and if you guess the story is about much more than a bell, you’d be right as well.
I was curious about the bell’s provenance, so I set up a meeting with Pastor Tim Freed at Nativity. The bell, he told me, was forged 171 years ago in Troy, New York, and delivered to the small Wales Hollow Community Church, a Methodist Episcopal church sitting alongside Buffalo Creek in the hamlet of Wales Hollow on East Creek Road, off Route 78. Beginning in 1850, it rang proudly in the hollow each Sunday as a call to worship for congregants and on the occasion of weddings and funerals. It also tolled when the congregation recited the Lord’s Prayer as a kindness and comfort to farmers who were tied up with milking or planting and couldn’t attend church, but who could pause long enough to pray in absentia with their peers.
The Methodist Episcopal Church opened in 1834 and operated until 1924 when the congregation dwindled and the church folded. The building sat vacant and quiet until after World War II. With peace, the soldiers returned to Buffalo, married, started families and itched to get out of the city, perhaps to farm a few acres. Enough hardy souls came all the way to Wales Hollow that the need for a church of their own grew.
In 1960, neighbors in Wales Hollow dug a basement a few hundred yards north of the church and moved the vacant building to its present site. With the church secure and up to standards, the bell once again rang from the re-incorporated Wales Hollow Community Church. Parishioners petitioned the regional office of the Methodist Church for a pastor, only to be told that since Baker Memorial Methodist Church was close enough they should worship there.
Undaunted, they began to hire visiting pastors, not an ideal solution, but better than having no church service at all. One of the visiting pastors was Rev. John Fehringer, the first pastor of the new Nativity Lutheran Church, formed in 1956. He struck a chord with congregants and signed on as a one-third-time pastor, with the other two-thirds of his time to be spent in East Aurora. Wanting simply to be a faith community and holding no binding allegiance to the Methodist sect, the congregation became Lutheran, adopting the new name Wales Hollow Evangelical Lutheran Community Church. Fehringer retired in 1989, succeeded by John Kroschel, who had a similar arrangement. In 2002, the church was prospering enough to separate, amicably, from Nativity.
The prosperity was short-lived, however. As the hamlet, once home to two general stores, a schoolhouse and a post office, withered, so did the congregation. Once again they needed a temporary pastor, since they could no longer afford their own. Tim Freed of Philadelphia, who had been called to Nativity in 2004, was cast into the role, conducting services in East Aurora and Wales Hollow, but determined that it would not last long.
“The future of the congregation was bleak,” said Freed. “To their credit, they recognized the situation, as difficult as it was to accept. These are the children of those who dug the basement and moved the church, after all. I said I could help them close with dignity and leave a legacy for future generations. We put on some final events, brought back John Fehringer (Kroschel had died, sadly) for a farewell, hosted the traditional strawberry social. In 2016, the bell rang for the last time.”
Then what to do with the building? Turns out that a neighbor, Kerry Planck, owner of organic goat farm, wanted to buy it for a processing and sales center. The purchase gave her pasture space as well. It was a perfect match.
“We asked Planck about the bell and she replied that her teenage children would no doubt ring the bell whenever they could, so she’d be happy to see it moved to Nativity. In 2019, Jamie Dodge from Dodge Enterprises, architect Stephen Movalli and I climbed into the steeple. We found, as we might have expected, 170 years of animal droppings and plenty of dust and dirt. Over the next several days, Dodge Enterprises and Brooks Rigging removed the steeple from the church with a crane and set it on the ground. They then removed the bell and set it on a flatbed for transport to Columbus, Ohio, where the Verdin Co. (who, by the way, made the clock in front of Vidler’s 5&10) would restore it. They restored the steeple, minus the cross, which Planck wanted removed to discourage passersby from stopping to see if they could have a wedding there.”
This summer, the bell, cleaned and restored to its bronze color and tonal clarity, rang from its shelter. Landscaping by Eagle Scout William Herr enhanced the area and will, in time, provide a screen from neighbors. A columnar beech, donated by Mike Telban of Johnson’s Nursery, was planted in memory of beloved church member Ray Hoffman. Nativity will place plaques honoring the Wales Hollow church near the bell and inside at the window looking out upon the bell.
But as I said in the opening paragraph, the story is about more than a bell. It’s about a congregation of people who loved their church enough to close it. When the former Wales Hollow parishioners sold the building, they, by law, had to disburse the funds. These rural folks decided to make charitable donations to the Lake Chautauqua Lutheran Center in Bemus Point, a retreat center. Their other gifts went to urban causes: St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy on Buffalo’s East Side and Peace of the City on Normal Street in Buffalo’s West Side, an after-school program for youth of underserved communities. And they’ve embraced their new church. Said Freed, “Not only did most of the former members of Wales Hollow join Nativity, they are among the most active. Salt of the earth folks.”
If you have never visited Wales Hollow, it’s worth the 10-minute drive from East Aurora. Dip down off Route 78 at East Creek Rd. and enter an enclave unto itself, seemingly unbothered by the world outside. At the old church, Planck’s Alpine Made (alpinemade.com) offers a line of organic goat milk soaps and skin care products and tours of her goat farm. A few yards farther and you’ll find the cemetery with a new headstone front and center. It reads “Wales Hollow Community Church: 1834-1924 Methodist Episcopal/1960-2016 Evangelical Lutheran.”