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Historic church in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn keeps tradition - bell tolls for Reagan
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New Utrecht Reformed Church

328 Years

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Eds: Pictures showing the tower and the inside of the church with the scaffolding to the ceiling are available through the Friends of Historic New Utrecht at 1-718-234-9268 and 1-718-256-7173.


'Through the centuries much of the story of our nation has been told by the sound of that bell'

BROOKLYN - Despite its deteriorated setting in a historic bell tower in dire need of repair, a church bell that has rung upon the death of every president since George Washington made its somber tone known again on the day former President Ronald Reagan died.

"We took a chance," said Robert Buonvino, president of the Friends of Historic New Utrecht. "But we didn't want to break from tradition. So we very carefully went up and rang the bell."

The tower in the New Utrecht Reformed Church on 18th Ave. at 84th St. in Bensonhurst has been closed off for months, along with the rest of the church building, after engineers and architects estimated that $1.8 million will be needed to repair and restore the landmark structure which dates from 1828. The church, formerly Dutch Reformed, was founded in 1677.

Saturday evening, June 5, two members of the Friends organization, Kevin Flynn and Robert Tycenski, put on gloves, took a flashlight and carefully crawled up through dust and debris and scaffolding to get into the bell tower, Mr. Buonvino says. There they used the bell's "funeral clanker" to ring the bell 50 times, with a one minute interval between each time the bell was struck. Mr. Buonvino and George Munkenbeck, chaplain of the 14th Brooklyn Regiment, Company H, re-enactment group, assisted.

"Despite the obstacles of even getting up to the tower in the old church, the tradition was not broken," Mr. Buonvino said. He listed other occasions when the bell has been rung, at times of national celebration or grief, including:

- the death of Washington in 1799,

- the deaths of all American presidents since then,

- the end of wars, including the Civil War and World Wars I and II,

- the deaths of Cardinal Spellman, Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio and Bob Hope.

"Through the centuries much of the story of our nation has been told by the sound of that bell and through the 'living history' contained in the building that now sits in silence awaiting our help," the historian said.

Last month Gov. Pataki announced a $300,000 state matching grant to be used for external renovation of the building that until December had been a community "living history center" serving hundreds of city school children and their teachers. Since then, many of the activities, including this year's annual "Liberty Weekend" June 4, 5 and 6, have been held in the adjacent Parish House.

The scaffolding runs from the basement through the ceiling to the attic, just below the tower. It helped to make certain that the roof and tower did not collapse from the weight of snow in the winter. "We survived," Mr. Buonvino said, "and we were able to ring the bell at least one more time. Now we need federal and other help to preserve this unique piece of Brooklyn history."

In 1701 the bell, which cost 786 guilders or $314.40, according to church records, when it was brought over from Holland, was in New Utrecht's original, octagon-shaped church. That was near 16th Ave., where the New Utrecht Cemetery, dating from 1654, can still be visited today. Early settlers of Brooklyn, before "Brooklyn" had its name, are among those buried there with soldiers of the American Revolution. It is maintained by the church and the Friends organization and tours are given for school children and other groups, including veterans and senior citizens.

The church at that site was torn down when a larger building was needed and parts of it were used for the new structure at the center of New Utrecht community life on 18th Ave. The bell was recast to increase its size before it was installed in the new tower in 1830.

Until recently tours were given of the church, noted for its "little Dutch doors" leading to the pews, a magnificent pipe organ and world famous stained-glass windows. Educational and cultural programs were held regularly for school children to gain a first-hand appreciation of United States' history.

Outside, on the front lawn, a site once visited by George Washington, the nation's last remaining "Liberty Pole," 106 feet high with a "Liberty Eagle" on top, stands near 18th Ave. It's the sixth such pole placed there. The first went up in 1783 when the British were leaving.

Persons interested in learning more about Brooklyn's early history are invited to call 1-718-256-7173 or 1-718-234-9268. They also may log onto the Friends of Historic New Utrecht's Web site at www.historicnewutrecht.org or send inquires to mail@historicnewutrecht.org.


PR services donated by bhprEspeciallyForChurches
June 2004


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