Around the Island

‘It Tolls for Thee’: Union Chapel in the Grove

We climb the wooden steps to the bell tower of Union Chapel in the Grove to ring the antique bell, welcoming everyone to pray on Sunday mornings.

Even though the tower is hot as an attic, the sound of the bell still resonates beyond the tower into the leafy grove. Ed Hydeman is a trustee who has performed this duty for the last two years. He pulls the blue and white rope several times before the bell begins to chime.

“The challenge,” he says, “is to produce a consistent tolling. It requires a considerable amount of strength to get the bell started and then a measured force to continue its ringing.”

The bell is housed far above us, not visible, requiring a climb on a second ladder into a space that is not for the faint of heart. Only Jay Sterling dared.

There’s a tradition in the way the bell is rung on these mornings. Eugene Luntey, a longtime trustee, lays out the protocol: “Ten loud clangs at 10:20. Then at 10:30, 10 loud clangs after the organ prelude as the signal for the presider to start the service.”

Despite its antiquity, he urges a full-out effort. “Bells are made to be rung. You will not break the bell. It is designed to ring loudly.”

Cast by McShane Bell Foundry in Baltimore, Maryland — “America’s Bell Specialist since 1856” — the 1,000-pound bell was forged in 1890 and is rung by swinging on its axle; the hanging clapper strikes against the moving bell. The Chapel’s bell is unusual, however, because it has dual ringing clappers, including a “tolling” clapper, activated by a separate white rope, that swings against the stationary bell to give a single mournful tone.

You can hear the bell’s solemn peals in the grove, adding a sacredness to the gatherings. Services at Union Chapel moved outside this summer to protect the health of the congregation, and will remain outdoors for the rest of the summer, weather permitting. Social distancing and face coverings are required.

The service on July 26 will be the last informal one, featuring guest musician Sara Mundy.

During August, Union Chapel returns to its more traditional format of guest preachers and speakers from different faiths. There will be three Memorial Sundays, remembering Island residents who passed away during the year. The bell will toll on August 2 for deceased Heights members; on August 9 for Garden Club members; and on August 16 for members of the Yacht Club.

Back in 2011, when the funeral procession for former Governor Hugh Carey made its way from the North Ferry to Our Lady of the Isle Church, the Union Chapel bell tolled.

Memorial Day observances were canceled this year due to COVID-19, so Jay Sterling rang the bell exactly at 10 a.m., joining the other church bells and sirens to remember our fallen service members.

For whom does the bell toll? Poet John Donne, in 1624, long before Ernest Hemingway, crafted the well-known phrase as the final line in his poem, especially fitting for an interfaith chapel on an island: “No man is an island/entire of itself./ Each is a piece of the continent/A part of the main … Each man’s death diminishes me/For I am involved in mankind./Therefore, send not to know/For whom the bell tolls/ It tolls for thee.”

Union Chapel’s bell rings for the living and the dead, for those we remember and for everyone who is fortunate to hear it.

This massive bell, hanging high above Union Chapel, forged in a foundry in 1890, chimes every Sunday summer morning, a piece of history that continues today, calling us to rise and pray together in a leafy grove.

Join us on Sundays at 10:30 a.m. Come hear our bell.