McKendree University’s Lebanon campus dates back to 1828 and has deep ties to the Civil War.
It’s safe to say that history is important to the school, its staff and its students.
That makes the oldest artifact on campus — the Bothwell chapel bell — a great source of tradition and pride.
School leaders say the bell has been making sweet sounds since the 8th century.
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Much older than the Liberty Bell or even the United States, for that matter, it’s believed McKendree’s bell, which every day sounds on the half hour and the hour and during the signing of the matricula during the fall convocation and at the commencement ceremony in May, is the oldest in North America.
“It’s a tremendous honor to be responsible for such a historic piece and something that is so important to the people here at McKendree,” school chaplain Tim Harrison said.
While the bell is often heard, it is rarely seen.
It’s hidden inside the steeple of Bothwell Chappel just below the clock. There it sits at about the height of a four-story building.
To get to the bell you have to go through an access panel in the second-floor ceiling of the chapel, just behind the pipes of its organ. From there, people who care for the bell have to climb two steep ladders to reach the approximately 1,300-year-old instrument.
Bell caretaker Tim Mullins said a handful of workers make the steep, dusty climb about twice a year to make sure everything is in order.
“Hopefully, if it’s taken care of, it will last forever,” Mullins said. “I don’t see why it won’t be here long after we’re gone.”
Besides the occasional checkups, Mullins said the only contact humans have with the bell is through its 1950s-era control box on the first floor of the chapel. A binder with yellowed, typewritten pages serves as the bell’s owner’s manual. It must be navigated twice a year to set the program forward and back for daylight saving time. Otherwise it would chime the wrong number of times on the hour.
“No matter where you are on campus, you can hear the bell,” Mullins said. “So I’ll catch myself stopping to count how many times it rings.”
The other time the bell is manually operated is during convocation and graduation. A lookout relays word to the bell ringer about when the last person signs the matricula in the spring to signal when the bell-ringing should come to an end.
According to school leaders, the bell was originally made in the 8th century for a Spanish monastery.
A search of the internet revealed one contender for the title of oldest bell in North America. It’s a church in East Haddam, Conn.
Members of the St. Stephen’s Church congregation claim their bell is from the same place, Spain, and that is was cast in about 815 A.D. But there are several different versions of the history of that instrument, and there is a dispute if the number 815 on the bell actually refers to the date it was made.
The inscription on the Connecticut bell is written in Spanish. Scholars say if it was made in the 9th century, it would be inscribed in Latin. Some think the number is a reference to the saint for which the monastery was named, not the age of the bell.
McKendree’s bell has an easier-to-follow history. It was recast in the 14th century and brought to America in the 16th century by Jesuit missionaries who landed in what is now Florida.
After the missionaries were attacked by Native Americans they were relocated to Mexico City and took their bell with them.
The McKendree bell eventually made its way to Santa Fe, N.M., where it hung at a mission which was eventually abandoned. It was eventually discovered by traders and brought to St. Louis in the middle-1800s to be recast at the foundry of David Caughlan. His descendant, Brian Caughlan, is a McKendree graduate.
“David Caughlin was my great-great-grandfather’s brother,” Brian Caughlin said. “He was an abolitionist and that wasn’t very popular in Missouri in the time before the Civil War.”
Caughlin said terrorists with Confederate ties twice burned the family’s St. Louis foundry. After the second time, the shop was closed for good and David Caughlin moved to East St. Louis where he founded a church. He is buried in Trenton.
The bell was on display at the Illinois State Fair in Centralia in 1858 when its sweet tone caught the attention of McKendree President Nelson Cobleigh. It was purchased by the school for $60 and rang a few months later to celebrate the graduation of the class of 1859.
Since then the bell has become a sentimental favorite part about the school’s Lebanon campus. There was even a song written in 1959 about the bell on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of its debut at the school.
Soon it would also have a new home.
On Jan. 23, 1959, a story in the Lebanon Advertiser annouced that the Bothwell Chapel steeple had been condemned because the structure was unsafe. It was torn down on Feb. 5 of that year.
Initially, McKendree leaders proposed a plan to build a new building to replace Bothwell chapel, which was built after an 1856 fire destroyed the original chapel built in 1828.
But, after an outcry, plans were changed and it was decided to restore Bothwell Chapel rather than replacing it.
Plans included new headquarters for the Religion Department, a lounge, a museum, an auditorium and a location in a new steeple for the old chapel bell.
Work on the renovations began in 1961. But the bell was not returned to the steeple until March 13, 1970.
To protect the building and the bell, the instrument was mounted in a fixed position. Only the clapper of the bell moves instead of the entire bell rocking back and forth to create its chime.
“It still has a very sweet sound,” said Harrison, the school chaplain. “The bell is always something people remember when they come back to the campus.”