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Prime Time: A bell for St. Bart's

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News Bemidji,Minnesota 56619
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Prime Time: A bell for St. Bart's
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

Once upon a time, there was a little church. It stood on the corner of Main Street in the little town of Mentor, which is located about 70 miles west of Bemidji on Highway 2.


At one time there were actually seven or eight little churches in Mentor, each one having its own charming little story, I'm sure. This, however, is a story about the "Oldest Little Church in Town."

The Beginnings

It all began back in 1883 when a small group of Episcopalians decided they needed a church. According to some sketchy history, things worked out pretty well for them. It seems there was help all around! For openers, a nice couple donated the land on which the church was built. The Rev. Joseph Gilfillan, an Episcopal missionary to the White Earth Indians and friend to the settlers in the Mentor area, donated the money to construct the building. Contractors Abbott and Marsten were hired to get the show on the road, and in no time they built the church and also a rectory. Unfortunately, the rectory burned to the ground the very day it was built.

Finishing Touches

When the building was completed, it had nine beautiful stained-glass windows, kerosene bracket reflector lamps and nice alter drapes. But the most beautiful part of the church was the name, Church of the Beloved Physician.

The dedication services were held Oct. 22, 1884. Twelve children were confirmed and everyone enjoyed a community picnic. The church was officially open for business.

Fast Forward to 1893

The plot thickens.

For some reason, the church was moved into the town of Mentor. How moving the building all of half a mile could possibly make a difference in the life of the church, I'll never know. What a project! But what do I know? With no electricity or plumbing to deal with, it was probably a piece of cake. I do happen to know that all the valuable windows survived the move just fine. What I find most baffling about this time in history, however, is the matter of the bell and the bell tower.

This actually is the subject of this column. Although there are photos of the bell and bell tower attached to the church, there is no mention of them anywhere. So when and how the bell became part of the church is a real mystery to me.

The Bell Ringing Buhns

The 1800s went out and the little church struggled on. In the 1900s, my family came on the scene. In the '40s, my mother, Eva Buhn, became a devoted member of The Church of the Beloved Physician. Of course, we kids would follow her good example and become good churchgoers, too. The congregation was slim even in those days. Most of the members were very elderly, so the church was lucky to have us five big strong Buhn kids around to do the heavy work. During the winter, we were needed to start a fire in the big barrel stove, shovel snow and haul water from the creamery for special events.

But, the biggest task of all was this: We had to take turns ringing the big bell that would signal the start of the church service.

It took a lot of muscle to get that baby ringing. It was tied to a huge thick rope, and when we finally got the big, heavy bell really swinging and ding donging, that old bell tower -- and the whole church, for that matter --creaked and groaned and shook to the point where we feared the whole place would come crashing down! Maybe we secretly hoped it would. Ringing the bell was a lot of work. It was fun but scary.

'The Little Church' closes

It was the 1970s, and like many churches, large and small, the time came when the Church of the Beloved Physician had to "call it a day." Membership declined. My brothers and I went off to seek fame and fortune elsewhere. There was no one left, except my mother, to keep the church alive. My mother was pretty sad. But she had to, as they say today, "suck it up" and get on with life. I don't know where she got the authority, but she proceeded to close things down. My brother Jack got the old pump organ,; I got the communion set and the little woven offering basket. I still don't know where the stained glass windows ended up.

And then there was the matter of this big bell.

Who would need or want such a monstrosity? That was a no-brainer. St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in Bemidji would of course be the ideal new home for the bell. It was in divine order! The rest is history. St. Bart's took us up on our offer and the Rev. George Smith and his wife, Betty, took George's pickup truck, drove over to Mentor, loaded up that big old 400-pound bell and brought it back to Bemidji. In 1982, Ade Mann and some friends constructed a free-standing brick bell tower on the church property at 10th Street and Beltrami Avenue. In 1993, the church was demolished and the parishioners moved to their new home on 18th Street and Irvine Avenue. The bell was dismantled and stored in the garage at the new location, and there it remains today.

A Bell is For Ringing

It turns out this big bell is quite a valuable curiosity. According to Bob Montebello, who has researched the bell, it was made in 1884 by the only remaining active bell foundry today, Henry McShane Bell Foundry of Baltimore, Md.

Well, so what? Wouldn't it be something if this bell could find a home in a nice bell tower and start ringing again just as it did in the good old days?

St Bart's Centennial

It's hard to believe that St. Bart's turns 100 this year. The Centennial Committee and church members are coming up with all kinds of ideas on how to celebrate and commemorate this very special event. One idea that many parishioners are interested in and are quite excited about is the possibility of building some kind of structure for the bell. The cost of such a project is being investigated. In the meantime if you read this column and think you might be interested in supporting such a historic project, please give us a call at St. Bart's at 444-6831. We would love to hear from you.

By the way, when the Church of the Beloved Physician was no more, a community center was built on that site and to this day continues to be used for many of the town's activities.

Pioneer staff reports