The Final Bell Tolls

May 27, 2011 | 23 comments

I stood in the bathroom, wringing wet, when the telephone rang.

Jan, a widow from town, dialed our number. The men had rung her church’s bell for the very last time, and they were lowering it from the tower, and it would never ring here again.

She needed to process the pain a bit with someone. And could I listen to a poem she had written about her old church bell? To her, that bell’s familiar ring always sounded like home. Like Jesus.

I sat on the edge of the bed, and of course, I’d love to hear. She had barely begun reading when the raw emotion of it all grabbed her voice in a vice. And it wouldn’t let go.

“I don’t know if I can get through this whole thing,” she said, apologizing through her tears.

“It’s OK. It’s OK,” I repeated, holding a towel around me as Jan unzipped a bit of her heart over the phone.

Her poem, she said, was a love offering to a place where a piece of her faith story unfolded. She dialed my number because she figured I’d understand. Because writers do this sort of thing: We try to make sense of this wild world by putting down words like anchors.

She set her pain to rhyme, and began:

“They took the church bell down today,
To carry it away.
I heard it ring for one last time
as I turned and walked my way.”

The 125-year-old bell — which signaled the start of worship in the church  where her husband used to preach — had been sold. Yesterday, workers climbed up to the top of the bell tower, loosened the bolts and made arrangements to send the bell to buyers in Colorado.

Before they took the bell down, the men rang it one last time. Jan heard the  ringing from her house, two doors down from the church. She walked to the corner to witness the dismantling of a memory. 

Then, she went home and found a pen:

“There’ll be no call to worship
Each Sunday morn for me
The silence speaks so loudly
My teary eyes can’t see.” 

Jan and her church family whispered their last Amens inside that old Methodist Church in 2009. The church had been locally known for welcoming anyone in regardless of reputation, status or financial standing. From the outside looking in, all that seemed to matter to those folks was Jesus.

But membership dwindled. People got old, died, or just moved on. Young families moving in picked other churches. Two summers ago, the church closed. It was sold to a local couple who now use the church as a residence — and who naturally don’t need a church bell in the tower anymore. They sold the bell on eBay.

Jan’s voice wavered through the words:

“Perhaps it will be placed
To beckon God’s children to see
and welcome them to come and hear
God’s call ring out for you and me.”

When the ringing in the ears sounds like love,
you never want it to end.

Jan remembers how that green velvet felt when she ran her fingers along the pews. She remembers how the sanctuary looked, wearing candlelight and greenery for Christmas. She remembers who sat where, and the way folks would bow low before that sturdy communion rail. She remembers loving Jesus there.

And she remembers that bell. She read the last stanza, and a single tear slid down my cheek.

“Yes, they took the church bell down today.
It will not ring again at dawn
But somewhere that sweetest sound
will be heard throughout your town.”

Related post: Amen (About the closing of the Methodist Church in town)

Poem by Jan Hamann of Inwood, Iowa. Thank you, Jan, for sharing your beautiful heart with us. I will cherish my handwritten copy of your poem. And we pray your church bell rings again one day.  

“Church for sale” photo from the 2009 archives.

by | May 27, 2011 | 23 comments


  1. HisFireFly

    “putting down words like anchors”

    love this… what a perfect explanation of what we attempt to do

    • dukeslee

      Thank you, friend. I don’t know about you, but I seem unable to make sense of my thoughts until they find paper.

  2. Simply Darlene

    Oh my land. I never once gave thought to the idea that churches are real estate to be bought or sold.

    Miss Jennifer, how many of us have unzipped our hearts for you? Thank you for taking the time to listen, to care.

    And miss Jan, what a beauty you have shared. The bell is not really gone, is it? Not really. I reckon the souls that have been saved and the hearts that have been healed, continue to hear its clanging.


    • dukeslee

      Hey Darlene …

      And the thing is, it sold for about $29,000. It’s a gorgeous old place. I’m so glad I got to tour it before it sold. However, I regret that I never attended a worship service there.

      Thank you for your kind words, my friend. You make me smile. Love your friendship …

  3. S. Etole

    “the silence speaks so loudly” … always

    thank you both for your shared words and the photo of that beautiful church

    • dukeslee

      Thank you, Susan. I’d love to tour you around the inside. Someone as skilled with a camera as you are could get some great shots.

  4. Dave

    I’m really grateful Jan chose you as the person to whom she could unzip her heart.

    Who better to share a story that seemingly has no real attraction – it’s a bell, for crying out loud – than with one who finds love revealed in the shape of a ‘Y.’ You graciously listened to her crying out loud heart.

    Thank you for sharing a story about a bell that has tolled about love and whose noise-making clapper has created a melody of memories.

    Proof, once again, that the hidden obvious presents gifts words can only attempt to describe.

    • dukeslee

      Thank you, Dave. I wonder: Do new churches generally install bells?

      I grew up with a bell that rang at the start of the church service. And in my present church, every Sunday, Art Stensland opens the window of the church so we can hear the bell toll several times as church begins. I’m glad I attend a church with a bell. That may sound silly, but it just makes me smile.

      • Dave

        I had never thought about new churches and bells.

        Most don’t, I bet – mainly because when the new church begins meeting as a Body of Believers, it’s in a worship space that is borrowed or rented (school gym, movie theater, warehouse, converted something-or-other) and the place of their gathering never even had a bell to begin with.

        A friend in Sioux City has a new church start & his Community of Faith moved into their own place of worship last month after ‘sharing’ a building with an existing church for four or five years. I’ll ask…

  5. Missie

    What a hard thing, she was so lucky to have you

  6. Aubrey

    Jenn, I so feel for Jan! I too have many memories of that little church. It was the first on I remember attending, my first Christmas program, my sister and brothers baptisms, and of course my first Sunday School lessons, taught by Ella Hanson! Saddens me to see it taken appart.

    • dukeslee

      Hi Aubrey! Thank you so much for sharing your story about the Methodist Church in this space. You have many memories of the church. I so wish that I had been able to worship there — even just once. It’s gorgeous.

  7. Kay

    My heart breaks for Jan. Thanks for sharing this touching but difficult moment.

  8. Kelly Sauer

    Oh the ache of the old things lost… Oh the groaning.

    Thank you for this, for all this longing and sharing and writing and loving here.

  9. Lyla Lindquist

    It would be just like me to brush this sort of thing off. It’s just the building, it’s just this, or that, or the bell.

    And yet. And yet. It’s not at all “just something.” These tangible objects, ones we can feel and hold and see and hear, they take in all the intangible things we can know and remember but can’t hold any more. And so, the hearts of ones like Jan do break when these things are no more.

    Beautiful poem from your friend. Beautiful words from you. Something tells me Jan still gets a regular call to worship even without the clapper on iron.

  10. Diana Trautwein

    This is just wrenchingly lovely, Jennifer. Beautifully bittersweet. When we bought our house here in CA, as I took a job as an associate pastor in this town, one of the reasons we chose this place was because the old mission style Catholic church just down the hill rang bells several times a day. I loved the sound, loved it. Several years ago some neighbors complained that they were too loud and then they discovered that the weight of the bells was getting to be too much for the old roof/ceiling. So now there is a recording – you read that right – a recording of bells ringing. And we can no longer hear it, 4 doors up the hill. SO sad somehow. The closing of a church is even sadder – and you have captured it just beautifully in the way you’ve showcased your friend’s words in and around your own. Thank you so much.

    • dukeslee

      Oh Diana … A recording?

      I say let the bells ring long and loud!

      This morning, when Art opened the window and rang the bell to signal the beginning of our service, I appreciated the bell more than ever before.

  11. Lori

    $29,000…..unbelievable. Breaks my heart. I felt this…..a Pastor here in Arizona has been battling the city for about 3 years now because the neighbors complained his church bells are too loud. They may be able to silence the bells in our towns but never the ones in our hearts, and NEVER the ones in Heaven. Beautifu story here, love the poem. I pray that Jan finds comfort in knowing the bells in her heart can never be silenced 🙂 Lori

  12. DJ Hughes

    This is beautifully written.

  13. Sandra

    Hi, i came over from Just A moment by a link on her post today. so glad i did, this is a heart wrenching and beautiful story. the church is beautiful and i would love to live in it. i would have wanted to keep the bell. my dad was a baptist preacher, we had a bell also, no one moved in our church, they sold it and it was torn down and a big hotel resides on that spot, so we only have the memories. thanks for sharing this post and for my memories. we have a methodist church that is close enough to hear the bell and now that i have thought about it from this post, i have not heard it lately.

  14. Sheila Lagrand

    I hope every Jan with a hurting heart has a Jennifer on speed-dial. Can you imagine a world like that?

    Because no matter how much we trust Jesus, sometimes we need someone with skin on to comfort us.

    • dukeslee

      Thank you, Sheila. The pleasure was all mine. She’s a lovely lady, and I was honored that she would call, and that she would choose to share her art of words with me!

      God bless you, friend.


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