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Bell still ringing 94 years later
Rescued bell now hangs at United Lutheran belfry
This photo from Reta Ueckers scrapbook shows the late Vernon Uecker refurbishing the old First Trinity Church bell. - photo by Photo Contributed

For years, a bell hung in the belfry of the building that now houses the Manteca Historical Museum.

But soon after the First Trinity Lutheran Church purchased the property at the corner of Yosemite and Sequoia avenues from St. Paul’s Federated Church in 1960, the bell had to be taken down.

“It was old. It had a crack. And it was kind of rusty,” recalled Reta M. Uecker who, with husband Dewey, were among the first members of the First Trinity Lutheran Church when it was established in 1960.

The original church complete with bell tower was completed in 1918.

For 25 years, the bell “sat outside” in anonymity, its existence forgotten largely because no one knew what to do with it. That’s where it was during the years First Trinity Lutheran occupied the museum building. And that’s where it continued to be when the congregation moved to the church building on Northgate Drive after the two Lutheran churches in town merged in 1970. First Trinity was a member of the Missouri Synod Lutheran church. All Saints at Northgate was an affiliate of Lutheran Church in America. When the two churches consolidated, they became known as the United Lutheran Church of Manteca.

Cleaning up the bell by sandblasting and restoring it to a functional condition was a daunting proposition, to say the least, which was probably why, for the longest time, nobody stepped forward to rescue the bell. That is, not until a brave soul named Vernon Uecker decided to take up the challenge.

“I think I can do something about it,” Reta recalled Vernon saying at the time.

Vernon was her brother-in-law.

“He made that his project – to get the bell restored” and put back up and ringing again at a new church belfry, Reta said.

When Vernon completed the daunting task, the next step was to build a belfry where it would once again call the faithful to worship. With the help of Vernon’s brother and Reta’s husband, Dewey, and other church volunteers – Bill Harris was one of them as shown in one of the pictures in Reta Uecker’s scrapbook – a new belfry standing roughly two stories high, was constructed on the west side of United Lutheran along Northgate Drive.

On April 26, 1998, The Bell was dedicated. After Vernon passed away in 2007, a memorial plaque was placed at the base of the belfry in his honor.

To celebrate that historic event for the church, Reta Uecker penned a poem which chronicled the story of the bell and its decades’-long path to a-pealing resurrection. The narrative verse was printed inside the front cover of the commemorative brochure marking the dedication. It reads in part:

“Manteca had one Lutheran Church/First Trinity was its name,/They belonged to the Missouri Synod/And quite a few people came./Another church opened called All Saints/Their synod was LCA,/They built a nice church down at Northgate….

“Then old Trinity Lutheran was sold…./They moved what they could to Northgate/Some things they just could not sell,/Among these items most treasured/Was the old First Trinity Bell./For 25 years it was stored here and there/There were plans to have it erected,/But in spite of it all when the votes were in/The plans were all rejected…

“Then Vernon took charge and said to the group/I think it can be restored,/He worked many months with some help now and then/To ring this old bell for the Lord/

“Now the bell stands on Northgate, majestic and tall/For all the world to see,/And all generations can come and say/’That’s Vern Uecker’s Legacy!’”

The story of the bell at the museum building

The First Trinity congregation took down the old bell from the belfry prior to the estimated $50,000 fire that destroyed the building on May 7, 1972. At that time, the building was in the process of being sold by the First Trinity Lutheran Church to the Spanish-speaking congregation of the Assembly of God Church which named their first home, Eglesia Getsemania Latin-American Assembly.

The Ueckers were among the first members of the First Trinity Lutheran Church.

“We moved out here in 1959 and that was when we joined the church,” Reta recalled.

A story in The Lutheran Witness dated Dec. 1970 titled “Two Manteca Churches Unite” stated that First Trinity Lutheran was founded in 1955 with a “baptized membership” of 310 that year. All Saints Lutheran was founded in 1964 and had 213 baptized members at the time of the merger.

According to the May 7, 1972 story in the Manteca Bulletin, St. Paul’s Federated Church vacated the building in 1960. It then became the home of the First Trinity Lutheran Church until 1970 when it merged with the All Saints Lutheran Church on Northgate Drive. The building sat empty until it was sold to the Spanish Assembly of God church in 1972.

The structure originally had only a 50x70-square-foot area with a seating capacity for 154 people plus a 32-seat choir loft – that’s the mezzanine area above the museum’s gift shop today.

According to the same Bulletin story, the building was first built and used by a union of different denominations. Whenever the history of this structure on the southwest corner of West Yosemite Sequoia avenues is mentioned, it is often simply referred to as the old Methodist Church building. That, in large part, is due to the fact St. Paul’s Federated occupied it the longest among the many different denominations that have used it as a place of worship. That’s only two years longer than the time First Trinity Lutheran occupied the building. First Trinity Lutheran, however, owned the property for a total of 12 years.

Why the St. Paul’s Federated Church moved out of the building is another church-merger story resulting in today’s St. Paul’s United Methodist Church located on the southeast corner of Powers Avenue and East North Street.

After the consolidation of the two Lutheran churches in Manteca representing different synods, the united congregations worshipped at the building on Northgate Drive because it had more space to accommodate the combined church members, Reta Uecker said.

She also noted something about the fire which was never published anywhere before. The fire “completely burned up” the corner section of the building where the belfry stood with the white wooden cross on top of it.

“The cross never burned and just stayed white. It was pretty amazing. It was a strange thing,” Reta Uecker said. The picture of the fire in the Manteca Bulletin indeed shows the white cross standing on top of a black and charred belfry.

In the same Bulletin story about the fire, it stated that the building was in the process of being sold by the Trinity Lutheran to the Spanish-speaking Assembly of God. However, Reta Uecker said the building was sold to the Assembly of God congregation after the fire.

As to what happened to the cross after the building was purchased in 1992 by the Manteca Historical Society, she said she does not have any idea and surmised that probably the museum took it down and kept it as part of its collection. However, museum director Evelyn Prouty said she was with the understanding that the white cross that is on display today came from the old St. Anthony’s Catholic Church on Yosemite Avenue which also burned down.

City and fire officials initially speculated that the church fire was caused by something on, or that fell over, the floor heater. The city fire chief at the time was Stu Rogers, while the mayor was Charles Shaefer. The fire happened on a Sunday morning with no injuries reported.