Historic downtown church turns to public to repair aging bell tower

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Doug Emmons, facility manager at First Congregational Church, puts his back into ringing the church bell. The tower around the bell needs $500,000 in repairs, and the church is asking Portlanders to contribute.The Rev. Charles Svendsen understands that the life of a church can be a tricky thing. Svendsen is interim minister of First Congregational United Church of Christ. Perched on the South Park Blocks, First Congregational is one of the city’s oldest and most imposing churches. For 60 years, its 175-foot-high bell tower was the tallest structure in Portland. Only First Congregational’s bell rings out over the South Park blocks on Sunday mornings.

But that bell tower, basically unchanged since its construction in 1895, has been crumbling. Once, the church would have prevailed on its members to pay the $500,000 cost of the repairs. Forty years ago, the church had 700 members. Today it has 328. Most Sundays, somewhere around 135 people attend services, many of whom are children or grandchildren of earlier congregants, who drive in from the suburbs, often passing other congregational churches on the way to what Svendsen calls “the mother church.”

“These churches down here, they’re historical, they’re central, they’re the ones from whom all the other churches came,” Svendsen says of the old downtown houses of worship.

While a number of once-proud Portland churches have closed their doors in recent years, First Congregational is not about to go broke. In fact, while its membership contributions are down compared to years past, its income is greater than it was 10 years ago due to rental revenue it gets from leasing part of its property for the Newmark and Winningstad theaters on Southwest Broadway Avenue.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - First Congregational Church, like most of Portlands historic downtown churches, has seen its membership fall considerably since its heyday 40 or 50 years ago.The church’s 328 members would each have to contribute about $1,500 to pay for the restoration of the First Congregational Tower. While some are making contributions — about $85,000 has been pledged so far — the church has decided to ask the greater Portland community to take ownership of its bell tower by contributing to its Restore a Portland Landmark fundraising campaign. Its pitch asks the residents of what often is referred to as the nation’s most unchurched city to examine their relationship with its historic religious institutions.

Just south and west of First Congregational on the Park Blocks stands St. James Lutheran Church. A little bit farther south sits the Christian Science Church. Just south of First Congregational is the First Christian Church. Another dozen or so churches are scattered throughout downtown and the Goose Hollow neighborhood. Most of the old ones have at least one thing in common.

“All these churches have declined,” Svendsen says. But all are vital to the health of downtown and the larger Portland area, he insists.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - A wood panel recently fell from the bell tower at First Congregational Church on the South Park Blocks. For 60 years, the tower was the tallest structure in PortlandKerry Tymchuk, executive director of the Oregon Historical Society, says he’s a backer. He says the church, which was designed to resemble Boston’s Old South Church, is one of the few examples of Venetian Gothic architecture in the country. It also happens to sit next door to Tymchuk’s Historical Society.

“It would look so much better without that netting around it,” Tymchuk says, referring to mesh placed around a portion of the bell tower to catch falling tracery panels. Just a few weeks ago, in fact, a 2-foot-long piece of one of the wooden Gothic panels fell to the sidewalk near the church.

Svendsen says the church’s architecture often attracts more attention than the church itself. “We have PSU people who walk through here and don’t know this is a church,” he says. “It’s got this stone tower and this fortress kind of look. (They wonder), ‘Is it still vibrant? Do people still go?’ ”

In Svendsen’s view, repairing the bell tower can draw attention to the fact that a church does indeed live within the fortress-like building.

“It will be a beacon into the community to say this church is here and doing good work,” he says.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Tim Pollard, a member of First Congregational Church, takes his turn ringing the bell on a Sunday morning.

Church is community asset

But there is a larger question of good works that has often plagued the older churches and synagogues in Portland. Surrounded by an indifferent population, some church leaders have come to the conclusion that the only way their houses of worship are likely to attract attention, especially from young Portlanders, is to become more socially active.

“A church without good works is just a building,” says Amy Piatt, reverend of the First Christian Church. “It’s hard to justify.”

Piatt has been among the most visible of Portland clergy in pushing her congregation toward deeds as well as faith.

“Any church that’s going to remain relevant in the next few decades is going to figure out how to have more of a community center model than a ‘Come to us on a designated hour and worship like we do and save our church,’ model,” she says.

First Congregational has every right to ask the larger Portland community to help rebuild its bell tower, says David Leslie, executive director of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon. The church sanctuary, Leslie says, often serves as a venue for musical performances and lectures. Church members volunteer around the city.

“A church like First Congregational is a community asset that has value far beyond its own membership,” Leslie says.

In fact, Leslie sees the bell tower campaign as a test. If Portlanders donate money, he says, it will show they understand the civic value of the old churches, whether they want to be members or not.

Portland attorney and First Congregational member Ross Runkel, who has taken the lead in the fundraising effort, says there are plenty of reasons for noncongregants to contribute, starting with architectural significance.

“This is a Portland landmark,” he says. “It gets pictured in The New York Times. Its Venetian Gothic architecture is extremely rare in the whole country. Preserving that is part of preserving the real Portland.”

Besides, Runkel says, pulling on the bell ropes Sunday morning is a great deal of fun. Congregants sign up and get instructions. “It’s a game,” he says. And not an easy one, apparently. Runkel has had his turn.

“It’s a little tricky,” he says. “You can’t see the bell from where you’re pulling the ropes. You don’t know how far down to pull the rope and you don’t realize that bell weighs, God knows, how much. And when you let go, the rope swings way up twice as far as you pulled it down.”

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Custodian Wyatt Salcido watches Doug Emmons climb to First Congregational Church bell tower. Occasionally, when being rung, the bell turns over and needs to be unwound.

Plotting a course for church

More important than the rope-pulling struggle, according to Runkel, is the direction of this church. With a membership that appears to have stabilized, First Congregational needs a sense of purpose, in Runkel’s view. Maybe, he says, the repair of the bell tower can be part of that.

Runkel says he has approached a number of people inside and outside the church for donations. Some are friends, others Park Blocks notables. Only one, he claims, said no. A woman who had recently joined the congregation told Runkel First Congregational was a “dying church.”

Runkel’s reply? He didn’t deny that his church needs direction.

“I said we’ve got a congregation that right now does not have a central mission,” Runkel says. “There’s a lot of good energy in the church that doesn’t have a focus. This is a focus. And once they see the virtue of getting behind this, they’ll see how they can use their combined energy for a single church mission.”

First Congregational this year adopted a new mission statement, clarifying its commitment to be a church “embracing diversity of thought, belief and action,” according to Svendsen. Maybe, he says, the campaign to repair the bell tower can bring attention first to the building and then to the new mission.

Svendsen says he’s seen churches rally around a restoration project. He’s also seen fundraising and building campaigns corrupt congregations, becoming too much of a focus.

“You can get bogged down in buildings and programs,” Svendsen says. “It can kill your spirit if all a church is asking for is peoples’ money. We want to lift peoples’ sights ... the money is the means to do it, but it’s not the end.”

Churches have lives, just like people. And just like people, their paths are unpredictable. Some get reborn, some fade away, some, like foundation stones in a building well over a hundred years old, just remain in place, reminders that constancy has its place even in a world enamored of change.

The church bell at First Congregational is really two bells. Or, more precisely, one bell with two clappers. The one rarely chimed is the toll bell, a lower, more solemn tone that only is heard when a congregant or an important public figure dies.

On Sunday mornings the bell rope is pulled for what Svendsen calls “the joyful ring.” Sunday morning, always at 10:25 a.m., a First Congregational volunteer bends at the knees, gets surprised by how heavy a rope for a 119-year-old-bell can be, and puts his or her weight into the task.

But one part of the activity is not the same each week — the number of pulls. That depends on the strength and stamina of the bell ringer, for a few minutes at least, a representative of the church itself. How long do the bells chime across the park blocks on Sunday morning? Might as well ask how long a church stays vibrant, according to Svendsen.

“You pull the rope until you stop pulling it,” he says.

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