Unique church bell finds a new home at Sacred Heart in Southport

SOUTHPORT, NC -- Father Thanh Nguyen looked up excitedly when he heard the bell clang as it was being moved. It was music to the Sacred Heart Catholic Church pastor’s ears.

Then, when the 82-year-old bell was finally lowered down safely from its high perch and onto a deck, Nguyen applauded.

He wasn’t the only one deriving joy from the occasion – Sacred Heart’s prayers were answered Friday morning when the bell was carefully brought down from a belfry atop the church’s former home, which is a Southport residential property on North Caswell Street.

The property’s owners, Mimi and Tom Gregory, donated the bell to the church. After undergoing restoration work, the bell, which had been put in place when Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus of Southport was dedicated on May 4, 1941, will now have a home at Sacred Heart Catholic Church at Dosher Cutoff SE in Southport, where the church has been since 1991.

‘Sacred’ history

Becky Felton and her husband, the late Bert Felton, purchased the North Caswell Street property in 1993 and began renovating it in January 1995. That renovation was completed that September. They remodeled the church to be their home while retaining the character of the original building and restoring the bell, which Bert Felton usually rang around 6 p.m.

“We were able to ring the bell, but the bell was broken,” said Becky Felton. She also said the clapper inside the bell did not swing. It is her understanding that the bell was originally donated to the church by the local manager of the Wilmington, Brunswick and Southern Railroad.

The Gregorys said they purchased the property in May of last year from Becky Felton and are in the process of making extensive renovations. They ultimately want to live in the house.

“I would say we have one of the more unique homes in Southport,” said Tom Gregory.

One day the Gregorys were eating lunch by the waterfront when they saw Nguyen and Deacon Rick Autry. As Mimi Gregory recalled, once Autry learned that the Gregorys owned the “church house,” he said, “Oh, we really would love that bell. Would you ever be interested in donating it?”

The Gregorys, finding the bell difficult to maintain, readily consented to making the bell a gift to their parish. But there was a concern.

“We’re like, ‘Yes, but you know, it’s hard. We don’t know how it would come down,’” said Mimi Gregory.

Tom Gregory recalled the deacon’s response as, “Don’t worry about it. We’ll make it happen.”

And they did.

‘Where it belongs’

A team of five parish volunteers arrived early last Friday morning to take on the task of bringing down the two-by-two-foot bell, which weighs about 200 pounds.

Employing a pulley system, a rope attached to the bell was hung across a beam in the belfry and down across one side of the building where it was wrapped around a large tree branch to help bear the weight load. Meanwhile, a ladder was set up on the other side of the V-shaped roof. John Mattel and Charles Bruce glided the bell slowly down the ladder to where Ryan Kiniry, standing on another ladder on a deck, helped them manage to lower it down. Bob Callahan and Tommy Watson also helped.

“I’m ecstatic,” said Bruce, who planned out the delicate operation. He added, “I think everything went textbook, really. After sitting and thinking and thinking and sitting, I think everything went according to plan.”

Nguyen said the bell will be refurbished and placed atop a new portico to be built at the church.

“All we need to do right now is to wait for the permit to come from the county,” he said. “And as soon as the county approves or gives the permit, we will start the building and it takes two months to finish the portico.”

“We feel real great about it, kind of feel like it’s going to the home where it belongs,” said Mimi Gregory.

Nguyen said he felt very good about the bell returning to his church.

“It’s a part of our history,” said Nguyen. “We feel that part of us did not get lost somewhere.”

Republished with permission of The State Port Pilot.