As an aficionado of historical architecture, Paul Lieberum is no stranger to renovating venerable buildings. Yet, last Saturday afternoon (Dec. 19), he found himself awestruck by what happened at Bethel AME Church.
Local contractors have spent the past four months restoring the steeple at Chico’s oldest house of worship, which has been rebuilt and twice moved over its 153 years. As the CN&R reported in August, the project is based off original plans provided by the Chico Heritage Association, of which Lieberum is a board member. Lieberum, an architect, also rendered initial sketches.
Saturday, the church bell returned to its perch.
“Lizzie,” as the bell is affectionately called, has sat several blocks away—outside Trinity United Methodist Church—since 1957. That’s when Bethel AME—Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church—moved to its current location at the corner of East Ninth and Linden streets. Trinity returned Lizzie during a ceremony Oct. 21. Conroy Construction—one of the two contractors, along with Slater & Sons, donating labor to the project—placed the bell six days before Christmas.
“It was a very delicate operation,” Lieberum told the CN&R by phone. “The opening up there … looked like it had 2 inches of clearance on either side. The forklift they had, even though it was a gigantic forklift, just barely had enough extension to get up that high. So everything was as close as you could get.”
The process started in the morning and finished late afternoon, culminated by a single test ring of the bell.
“It looks great and sounds great,” Lieberum said, adding: “How they—or any church, for that matter—got a bell up there before they had forklifts, it’s incredible.”
Pastor Loretta Dickerson Smith, Bethel AME’s spiritual leader, was not present; she lives in the Bay Area and commutes for services and events. She told the CN&R by phone that her parishioners are “waiting to hear the bell ring and we’re waiting to have a ceremony celebrating this monumental day.”
The bell has deep meaning: “It will now be a call of gathering for the people for community and for worship, and we are so very excited about that. As being the oldest church in Chico, having everything restored to its condition is saying a lot, so very much for us, because it’s a dream we would never have imagined would take place—but it has.”
Chicoans beyond the church’s leaders and parishioners have supported the project. A North Valley Community Foundation fund to defray the costs has raised over $100,000. While the scope of the original project is nearly complete, pending exterior painting, Dickerson Smith said the church hopes to renovate further. Plans include new carpeting and interior painting, as well as new windows on the north side of the historic structure.
“We couldn’t have planned it any better as to what has happened,” she added. “I believe when you see things like this happen, God’s hand is in it, that it is providential.
“The entire project is quite symbolic to me, because it’s not just the restoration of the building, but it’s [also] the restoration of relationships between all those who are in the immediate community and in Chico proper. This coming together, this joining of hands, the rolling up of sleeves to do the work of rebuilding has just been an awesome sight to see.”