Pastor David Parker gets his first upclose look at the original bell in the belfry at Oak Harbor First United Methodist Church Thursday, March 9, 2017. Parker and his congregation are preparing for Sunday’s celebration of the church’s 125th anniversary. The old bell, the same one used when the church opened in Crescent Harbor in 1891, will be rung 125 times Sunday. Photo by Ron Newberry/Whidbey News-Times

Oak Harbor church rings in 125 years

Pastor David Parker’s first trip to the belfry at Oak Harbor First United Methodist Church revealed impeccable timing.

Using his cell phone light to guide him through pitch blackness, he ascended dozens of steps on a wooden latter in the church bell tower — all to catch his first glimpse of the church’s antique, original cast steel bell.

He got to the top of the ladder and climbed into the dusty belfry to marvel at the rusty bell, but not for too long.

“This is a place you don’t want to be when the carillon goes,” Parker said, checking his phone to notice it was just past 11:30 a.m. “We have electronic chimes that go off on the hour.”

On Sunday, that pattern will be altered significantly when the old bell itself will be rung 125 times in a row to mark every year since Oak Harbor First United Methodist Church was formed.

The church is celebrating is 125th anniversary Sunday with tales of its history and a look toward its future now that Parker has settled into his new role after arriving in July.

The celebration will start with a 10 a.m. worship service open to all.

During the postlude to the service as worshippers walk from the sanctuary to the fellowship hall to continue the celebration, members will take turns ringing the old bell, which has been a part of the church since its start in 1891.

“It’s as old as our church is active,” said Janann Roodzant, lay leader at the church who’s been busy researching the history to display before the congregation. “Its never cracked in all these 125 years.”

Children get to ring the bell a few times every Sunday to start service, but nothing like what’s in store this weekend.

Resting about 70 feet in the air inside the enclosed bell tower, the bell doesn’t carry the sound it once did.

It first rang in Oak Harbor in 1891 at the church’s original site in Crescent Harbor in an open belfry for all to admire.

When the church moved to its present location in the city to accommodate growth in 1920, the bell came along too yet was protected by an enclosure. Eventually, technology would alter the bell’s course as well, though it remains beloved and is a testament to the church’s resilient history.

“It’s not real loud,” Roodzant said. “We don’t hear it real loud inside. Outside you can hear it. It was great out on the old countryside when it was nice and quiet. We’re going to make sure everybody hears it Sunday. We’re going to honor that old bell. The theme for our celebration is celebrating the legacy and ringing in our future.”

The old bell, as well as the congregation itself, has withstood plenty. A brand new church was built on the same foundation in 1966 only to have the church sanctuary destroyed in a fire set by an arsonist five years later.

Services were held at the junior high school and local theater until a new sanctuary was rebuilt and opened Dec. 17, 1971 — only 10 months after the fire.

“I, of course, have inherited this amazing legacy that I’ve walked into,” Parker said. “The church has really established a history of faith, family and community service so that’s kind of the theme of our 125th celebration.

“There’s been a series of church buildings that have comprised the location of who we are. We first started in Crescent Harbor then moved to Oak Harbor quickly after that, went through a fire and a rebuilding process. The family’s very resilient.They’ve been around for a long time. We started with a pioneering spirit and of course we still have that pioneer spirit of wanting to be in and of and from and for the community.”

And during all that entire journey, there’s been one constant presence — the old cast steel church bell. Children raised the money to purchase the bell in 1891, Roodzant said.

It’s not as pretty as it once was, covered with rust and dust and tucked away out of sight in the darkness. But it still makes a beautiful sound.

Some members still recall when it was rung 52 times every day for 444 days during the Iranian hostage crisis that started in November 1979.

Fifty-two American diplomats and citizens were held hostage 444 days before their release Jan. 20, 1981.

Churches rang bells to keep those hostages foremost on everyone’s minds.

“The neat thing about it is the Help House is so close,” said Roodzant, noting the nearby food bank that the Oak Harbor First United Methodist Church helped found. “The bell is not real, real loud. They were close enough to hear it and they would stop and pray.”