Column: Where the bell tolls

LissaHalenThe bell tolls at St. Paul’s Church, right here in Eastchester. Actually it tolls in what was once a part of
Eastchester.

As Eastchester celebrates its 350 years of history, it would be a great time to visit not just the historic bell but the entire six acres of St. Paul’s Church. St. Paul’s has so many layers of history the National Park Service has designated it a National Historic Site.

A bit of geography with this 350 years of history may be necessary before a visit as Eastchester’s southern border has gone through several metamorphoses.

Beginning in 1664, the town’s southern border was in present-day Bronx up to approximately where Co-op City, Pelham Bay and Split Rock are now. That would put St. Paul’s right in the middle of Eastchester, a perfect place for what was once a meeting house and a village green.

Too much geography? Time to travel to this National Historic Site and touch these layers of history where the bell tolls.

Cast at the same foundry in London in 1758 as our country’s Liberty Bell, St. Paul’s bell is considered a smaller cousin to the country’s celebrated Philadelphia bell.

Before St. Paul’s bell tolled, a beating of the drum summoned worshippers to service. Once the bell was installed, up until the American Revolution, the bell announced local events and rang out annually on June 4to celebrate King George III’s birthday. It is now rung every July 4, commemorating America’s independence.

A trip up the belfry to touch and see the bell up close is part of the site’s Church Tower Walks given in spring and summer every other Friday.

As befitting this colonial village in the early 1700s, a small wooden meeting house was first constructed here on what was the village green. No, it’s not wooden now since the structure was torn down for firewood during the revolution. The church, which stands today, was started in 1763, completed after the revolution and added to through the years.

Not only does a bell toll, but an organ plays at St. Paul’s.

The organ is one of the nation’s oldest functioning pipe organs still in its original setting built by Erben, one of the finest organ craftsmen of the day in 1833. Take a look at its ivory covered keys with their engravings of the names of the musical stops.

At the church, sit in one of the unusually high pews. Their height may seem odd, but history explains the reasoning behind it.

Prior to modern conveniences like heating, the congregation brought their own space heaters and the high pews kept the heat in. The heaters were small, rectangular foot warmers—made of metal and wood—filled with hot embers from their fireplaces and placed on the floors of the pews. Clever.

During the revolution the aforementioned bell was hidden to prevent it from being confiscated for ammunition. The original meeting house and the unfinished church were used by soldiers on both sides of the war.

Surprised by the replicas of medical instruments? That is testament to the church being used as a hospital during the revolution. One glance at these tools and you’ll be happy you were not wounded then and there. It’s no wonder that the wounded soldiers were given liquor to dull the pain and that many died from infection.

Before venturing outdoors, stop for a moment to enjoy two paintings by a local artist, Edward Gay. He once sat on these grounds with canvas and paintbrush in hand. The spot overlooking the fertile river valley was perfect for an emerging American landscape painter during the late 1800s.

Walking outside, one would never guess the area was once so rural and lush. Now St. Paul’s sits in an industrial area. This industrial impression is unfortunately your first impression as you drive along Columbus Avenue to the historic site.

Ever see initials on a tom-bstone? The town was so small that full names were not always used since anyone in town would know “RS” referred to Richard Shute, one of the original settlers of the area. Shute’s 1704 grave remains one of the earliest in the cemetery.

Search for the graves of soldiers from both the Revolutionary and Civil wars. Meander over to the little bench, the peculiar grave site of the aforementioned artist Gay. Close your eyes and visualize the rustic landscape he appreciated and memorialized in many of his paintings, one of which is also owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

All of these features are available to the general public for free.

St. Paul’s Church is not merely a historic site, but an eclectic schedule of events.

Besides ongoing guided tours there are concerts that allow people to enjoy the organ, cemetery tours, historical reenactments and lectures about American history. Go to one or all, but begin at the site’s excellent website run by the National Park Service.

St. Paul’s Church National Historic Site is an enduring legacy to the United States Colonial period, Revolutionary and Civil wars and the demons of industrialization. Disregard the nearby commercial buildings to experience the layers of history right here in what was once the center of Eastchester.

Go visit. You will not just see where the bell tolls but you may get a chance to ring the bell yourself.

 

Just the Facts

St. Paul’s Church
National Historic Site

897 Columbus Ave.,
Mt. Vernon, NY 10550

914-667-4116

Admission is free
_______________________________

Lissa Halen is a resident
of Eastchester for more than
35 years and a member of
the Eastchester Historical Society Board.
Daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday
Seasonally the second Saturday of each month from noon to 4 p.m.
First Thursday of each month 1 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Special Events:
Ongoing—check the website.

nps.gov/sapa/index.htm