[Episcopal News Service] A century-old bell was ripped from its tower at an Episcopal mission church in South Dakota sometime around the beginning of the year, and Rosebud Episcopal Mission has a message for the thieves: Bring the bell back, and all is forgiven.
“If the thief/thieves would like to return the bell, we would gladly accept it and offer forgiveness – because that’s what we do in the Church,” the Rev. Lauren Stanley said Jan. 9 in a Facebook post seeking help in solving the crime.
The bell was stolen from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, just north of Norris, South Dakota. It had been housed in a simple, wooden tower that was capped by a wooden cross. A member of the congregation discovered the tower toppled and the bell missing on Jan. 7 and notified Stanley. The cross also was damaged.
“Right now, the whole community is just in shock,” Stanley said when reached by phone. “We are absolutely shocked that somebody would steal a bell from one of our oldest churches, and we are absolute appalled that anybody would attack a church in this way.”
The church was founded in 1890, and the bell could be nearly as old. Decades ago it was used to summon worshipers to St. Paul’s for the monthly service and a community gathering, which would stretch over multiple days, Stanley said. Church leaders also rang it to notify local residents of major news.
Its use as a communication tool eventually was eclipsed by modern technology, but the bell still is a cherished piece of local history for the community.
The church, which is served by the Rosebud Episcopal Mission, is on tribal land but outside the boundaries of the Rosebud Indian Reservation. During warmer months, services are scheduled every third Sunday, and attendance can range from a half dozen to as many as 85, if there is a baptism, Stanley said. St. Paul’s typically closes for the winter, when the congregation worships instead at a church in Norris.
The bell was last seen on Dec. 30, after a funeral at St. Paul’s. It was discovered missing by the congregation’s senior warden on her way home from visiting the nearby cemetery the morning on Jan. 7. She called Stanley that night, and on Jan. 8, Stanley drove over to inspect the damage.
Stanley thinks this was more than a case of vandalism. “This was not a quick job,” she told Episcopal News Service. The bell weighs at least 300 pounds – even more when adding its yoke, which also was stolen. The thieves appear to have cut the tower’s posts with a hand saw and then pulled it down with rope and a truck.
She suspects it was taken before Jan. 3 because snow fell that day, covering up the tire tracks left by the thieves’ truck. Stanley contacted both the county sheriff’s department and tribal police, who typically work together investigating crimes that happen on tribal land off the reservation.
The bell was stolen years ago, and members of the Sioux community back then were able to find it by sharing information with each other and convincing the thieves to bring it back. Stanley and investigators hope the same will happen this time.
“We believe that it’s the community that is going to get it back for us,” Stanley said. In the meantime, she is contacting scrap metal dealers from Rosebud to Rapid City asking them to let her know if someone tries selling the bell, though she doesn’t think it’s worth more than $10 melted down.
Stanley’s Facebook post had been shared 350 times as of midafternoon Jan. 9. Comments on the post have expressed shock, sadness and outrage.
“This theft has to be the saddest of all thefts!” said commenter Audrey Williamstead. “Why would anyone want to take the church bell which has been there forever?”
“I was baptized there,” said another commenter, Rhonda Eagle Bear. “Please return our bell.”
If the thieves bring the bell back, Stanley said, she not only will offer forgiveness, but “I’ll probably end up buying them dinner. Because what would you take a church bell for?”
Stanley added: “And then I’ll find some people to help me rebuild the bell tower, and the community will turn out for that.”
– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.