The Rev. Mark Andrus was beginning Sunday services at Middleburg's Emmanuel Episcopal Church late last year when the sweet chimes of the carillon, which for 45 years summoned the faithful to worship, suddenly "died with a terrible sound."
The quick-thinking organist hopped from the keyboard that operates the carillon back to the organ, and the service continued without a hitch. But since then--and for the first time in 100 years--the outside of the tiny brick church building has been as quiet as a tiny church mouse.
No Christmas carols wafted from the speakers in the bell tower last year. Now when Sunday morning arrives, parishioners straggle in, slipping into the wooden pews after the processional hymn has begun.
Andrus and his flock became determined to restore music to their belfry.
"I thought it would be sad to have a silent church," he said.
Thus began the search for the church's original bell, the one forged July 15, 1899, which tolled in the tower until it was replaced in 1954 by a set of electronic bells donated by a parish family.
After months of diligent digging and a stroke of luck, the congregation members finally tracked down their historic bell in the loft of the Greene County, Va., courthouse, 50 miles away.
"The bell was made for the church," Andrus said. "Now it may be time for it to come home."
But before that can happen, parishioners are searching for a replacement bell that they can offer to swap for the one in the courthouse.
Church records contain only the slightest mention of the bell, noting that it was cast by the Henry McShane Bell Foundry in Baltimore and weighs 400 pounds. But the worn books provide no clue as to when or why it was taken out of the church.
Parishioners, who have watched the hunt with some amusement, said the bell is an important part of their church's past, which they would like to see restored.
"There's a strong sense of tradition that goes with our congregation," churchgoer Tom Dodson said. "It's a symbol of our history and a piece of our congregation."
After the carillon played its final strains late last year, Andrus first checked the tower, wondering if the original bell was simply hidden behind the speakers. "You couldn't see up there very well, so I'd peer and I'd think and I'd peer," he said.
After a bit of thinking--it was too difficult to actually get into the bell tower to look--Andrus concluded there wasn't enough room up there for a 400-pound bell and speakers. So he started asking older church members if they could remember where it had gone. Eventually he hit pay dirt.
Bob Humphrey, a member of the parish since about 1940, recalled that the bell was relegated to the church lawn after the chimes were added in 1954. A few years later, the vestry decided to give it to Blue Ridge School, a boys boarding school near Charlottesville.
"The bell just sat there in the [church] yard, so the decision was made to donate it, since we weren't going to use it," Humphrey said. "I don't know if it was the right decision. We'd sure like to have it back now."
Acting on Humphrey's tip, Andrus called the school's chaplain, who said two bells were on campus but neither seemed to be from Emmanuel. The search seemed to have hit a standstill. Andrus got it moving, though, with a call the school's headmaster, Ed McFarlane.
McFarlane told Andrus he would examine the school's two bells, though he said he was certain neither had come from the church. Then McFarlane remembered a plaque he had happened upon months earlier--just about the time the carillon died--while serving as a juror at the nearby county courthouse in Stanardsville.
"I had never been in the courthouse, and [the plaque] caught my eye because it said 'Blue Ridge School,' " McFarlane said. "It said the bell in the tower was a gift from Blue Ridge School."
After contacting Greene County officials, Andrus and Dodson were off to Stanardsville. They arrived at the courthouse on a blazing hot Friday afternoon in July, just three days after the bell turned 100.
The clerk of the court and the county administrator had gone home for the day, but as the pair walked to the courthouse they were greeted by an elderly man who worked for the county.
"He said, 'Are you lost?' " Andrus recalled.
"I said, 'No, we're looking for something that's lost."
"He said, 'You're here about the bell.' "
Andrus and Dodson followed the man up a rickety ladder into the sweltering heat of the courthouse bell tower. "The first thing we saw was 'July 15, 1899' " on the side of the bell, Andrus said.
Andrus said he's hopeful the bell will be returned to the church by Thanksgiving. Meanwhile, parishioners have been searching for another bell for the courthouse, possibly one from a Navy ship.
Greene County Administrator Julius Morris said the bell was put in place in 1979 when the courthouse was rebuilt after a natural gas explosion that destroyed much of the building, including the previous bell. Morris said that he's not sure what will happen if the church offers to swap bells but that the county's Board of Supervisors likely would consider the deal.
Dodson said: "I'm hopeful the folks in Greene County will see our side of the story, so we can have the original bell back in its home."
CAPTION: Speakers of the broken carillon sit silent in the belfry of Emmanuel Episcopal, where parishioners want the church's original bell to hang.
CAPTION: This photo shows the church sometime before 1929, when its 1899 bell rang from the tower.
CAPTION: The Rev. Mark Andrus, rector of Middleburg's Emmanuel Episcopal Church, checks out the brain center of the carillon, which fell silent last year. Installed in 1954, it replaced the bell forged in 1899.