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Sunday Favorites: Century-old Bell Tolls Again

The church as it looked in 1920 from Cross Street in Punta Gorda. 

PUNTA GORDA-- As the truck pulled up to unload a large wooden box nearly 15 feet tall last Wednesday morning, a pure white feather blew through the air, landing at the feet of a member of the congregation. 


"Look," exclaimed Bobbi Trautschold. "It's a little sign from Heaven."


While the feather may have been a symbol from some higher power, the real relic was housed within the box, and it was practically a miracle volunteers were able to get the 1,000- pound package into the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, located on Shreve Street in Punta Gorda. 


As the wooden sides were pried open, a gleam of faith shined through. It was the church's solid bronze bell from 1896, completely restored to its original radiance. 


"This is the first time I could ever read the inscription," said Vernon Peeples, who spearheaded the effort to restore the bell along with fellow churchgoers Bill Trautschold and Allyn Gardner. "It was always so corroded. I have never seen another like it." 


The last time the people of Punta Gorda heard the bell ring was 11 years ago when it chimed to commemorate the tragedy of 9/11. In 2004, the bell tower suffered structural damage from Hurricane Charley. The church decided to remove the tower and the bellwas placed in storage, where it sat outside in the elements for several years. At one point, the clapper was used as a doorstop. 


"We didn't have the money before," said Bill Trautschold. "It wasn't a priority; first the roof and pews had to be repaired. But a few months ago we started raising money. The timing was finally right." 


The total cost of the repair was around $16,000. Trautschold said it would have been double to put it back in the tower. For now, the bell greets guests in the church entryway. 


Charley was the second storm the bell survived. In 1926, another hurricane caused the belfry and bell to crash to the ground, where it blocked traffic on Cross Street, the site of its original location. Today it is the oldest bell in Punta Gorda. 


"Our bell will be 116 years old in December," said Peeples. "It has rung through wars and peace, epidemics, births and deaths, the good years and the bad." 


For the first time, the inscription of the bell was ledgible. 

The bell was originally a gift from Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt, wife of Col. Samuel Colt who founded Colt's Fire Arms Co. After Samuel died, Elizabeth spent her winters in Punta Gorda with her son, Caldwell Hart Colt, where she was very active in community affairs. Caldwell, the only heir to a multimillion-dollar firearms fortune, "never identified with the industry," preferring instead to travel around the world, according to 'Church of the Good Shepherd: the First 100 Years,' by Chester Baum and Marguerite Albro. He reportedly had three loves, "wine, women and yachting." 


After Caldwell Colt died unexpectedly in Punta Gorda on Jan. 22, 1894 -- the official cause of death being listed as "mysterious consequences" -- several rumors circulated; one attributed his death to being shot by a jealous husband, another said he fell overboard drunk, and his family asserted it was acute tonsillitis. Whatever the case, Elizabeth wanted to memorialize him as she had done for her late husband in Hartford, Conn. She donated a significant amount of money to the St. James' Mission for the construction of a church; the only catch being that they must change the name to Church of the Good Shepherd. The church first opened its doors on Jan. 25, 1986; it was originally located on Cross Street and Virginia Avenue, but was moved to its current location in the 1950s. 


In addition to the bell , two Tiffany windows were donated along with a baptismal font. The church hopes to display them as part of Punta Gorda's 125th Anniversary celebration. 


"It's really good to have the bell back again," said Carol Eisenbourgh, a church member. "It looks absolutely gorgeous!"


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