Decision to knock down bell tower in Lebanon County stirs debate

PALMYRA, LEBANON COUNTY -- The decision to demolish a bell tower and cross at Palm Lutheran Church in Palmyra has stirred controversy among its members leaving what was once a united place of worship, divided.

"We all though the tower was going to be saved," said Carla Huffman, church member and former council member at Palm Lutheran Church.

Carla Huffman has been attending the church since she was a little girl. Her father, Gerhard G. Dietrich was a pastor for 28 years and the bell tower and its cross was put up under his direction nearly 50 years ago.

Carla and her husband, William...have been fighting alongside many other church members to keep the bell tower and its cross up, but they say the church council refused to acknowledge donations, petitions and didn't accept William Huffman's offer for a meeting.

"I wrote a letter listing 7 reasons for calling for the congregational meeting," said William Hoffman, church member. "They never responded though to those issues," he added.

The church's constitution states that along with a written reasoning for calling a meeting, 10% of the voting members need to sign a petition in order for a congregational meeting to be held, all things the Huffman's did with the help of other members.

Instead, the demolition of the church tower began 24 hours after a final decision was announced.

Church officials say they acted because of a crack in the bell tower that would be too expensive to fix, but some in the congregation say they were told in the past that the repairs would be reasonable and easy to complete. That's why the sudden demolition left them shocked.

"It was such a rush job that and many people were on vacation that when they came back it...it was a surprise to everybody because they were expecting to have it repaired," said Richard Barley, church member at Palm Lutheran Church.

Church member, Richard Barley says he and his wife were notified of the demolition just days before leaving for vacation last month.  He says they were denied the chance to put in an absentee vote, leaving them with unsettling feelings.

"The decision was made and there was nothing we could do about it," said Barley.

Now that the church tower has been taken down, members are left saddened.

We reached out to the pastor at Palm Lutheran Church and he replied with the following statement: "At a properly called and announced meeting at the Palm Lutheran Congregation, the Congregation Council recommended repairing the bell tower. The Congregation, however, decided by majority vote to remove it. The removal process began this week and is a result of the Congregation`s decision," said Rev. Dr. John D. Merkel, senior Pastor at Palm Lutheran Church. 

Carla and William Huffman say they hope the tower can one day be rebuilt. For now, though, they say they'll continue to stand for what is right.