Campbell Chapel AME's bells ring once again

Blufftonians used to keep time by the bells.

The clanging from Old Town's long-standing churches reminded people there was a place to gather and worship. They tolled to signal the start of services or the death of a member.

Nate Pringle, a Bluffton native, remembers as a child he could tell by the direction of the sound which church had lost one of their own.

What he can't remember is when the bells of his church, Campbell Chapel African Methodist Episcopal, stopped ringing.

On Sunday, they began again.

Thanks to a nonprofit organization led by Pringle, whose ancestor was among the church's founders in 1874, the bell rang for the first time in at least 15 years.

"We just get so sophisticated and skipped the finer things in life," said Pringle, president of A Call to Action. "We want to get back to the stuff that we should never have gotten away from, because that's actually part of our history, part of our heritage."

Campbell Chapel, which now congregates in a modern building on Boundary Street next to the original structure, used the event to mark its 141st anniversary and remember the nine people murdered at Emanuel AME in Charleston on June 17.

Among the massacre's victims was state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, Emanuel's pastor and the pastor of Campbell Chapel in 2009 and 2010.

The tolling also marked Pringle's recent effort to restore Campbell Chapel to its former status in the community.

His year-old nonprofit organization is planning renovations to the historic church, built in 1853, and a future for the building as a community center.

For now, the original church is used by another denomination, Iglesia Torre Fuerte, though that group will eventually leave the space, says Tom Crenshaw, a member of the nonprofit.

Crenshaw envisions the 162-year-old building as a sanctuary for special events like weddings and holiday services as well as a venue for concerts and seminars.

The organization would also use the space for educational workshops and economic development programs for underprivileged children and adults, he said.

Crenshaw and Pringle said it's too early to say how long renovations will take or how much they will cost -- though it will be a "large sum."

The group and a team of students from the Savannah College of Art and Design will work from historical photos, members' recollections and new research to determine what the church originally looked like. One of the major changes will involve exposing beams in the church's ceiling, similar to the Gothic construction of the Church of the Cross, Bluffton's second-oldest church, Crenshaw said.

The original Campbell Chapel AME was built by the United Methodist Episcopal Church in 1853. The structure is the oldest church building in town.

It was one of only two buildings, along with Church of the Cross, to survive the Burning of Bluffton in 1863, an attack by Union forces on what was then a hub of Confederate activity in the town.

In 1874, nine former slaves purchased the edifice and joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Little is known about many of the freedmen who started Campbell Chapel, said church member Frank Gadson, Pringle's uncle.

"There's all kinds of rumors, but nothing that we've seen so far we can document," Gadson, 68, said.

One of their ancestors, William Lightburn, was among the nine men who founded Campbell Chapel, though they don't have much documentation about him. Pringle hopes DNA tests will reveal what countries the founders were from, and that a few congregants' research will inspire others to look into their own pasts.

The building has survived other calamities, from hurricanes to a tornado in the 1930s.

Since then, the church has undergone several renovations, including the addition of classrooms, a kitchen, an updated sanctuary and modern plumbing.

The foundation also sank more than a foot, Pringle said, so children no longer play under the church like his uncles did growing up.

Aside from returning the church to its former state, Pringle hopes the renovations restore a sense of family to Campbell Chapel.

"When you've got 150 people crammed into that building, everybody was in close proximity -- you had to," he said with a laugh. "There was a lot of interaction. I think that's what we're trying to get back to."

Much of A Call to Action's efforts will take time, from researching ancestors to gaining historical recognition for the chapel.

One goal, though, is done -- the bell will ring at all major Bluffton festivals and events, Pringle said.

"It's just an experience to hear."

Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.

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