Cathedral bells tolling once again

By Sam Lucero | The Compass | June 1, 2016

Fund-raising initiative helps ring in restoration of historic church bells

GREEN BAY — For the first time in more than 20 years, the bells are chiming again at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral.

The cathedral’s two bell towers house five bells dating back to the mid-1800s. The largest bell, weighing approximately 3,400 pounds, is located in the north tower. Four smaller bells sit in the south tower. The south tower bells weigh 1,700, 950, 430 and 280 pounds, according to newspaper clippings stored in the cathedral archives dating back to 1882.

Last December, Fr. Joseph Dorner, pastor and rector of St. Francis Xavier Cathedral, submitted a letter to Bishop David Ricken requesting approval of the bell restoration project. He explained that the bells are in good condition, but the hardware used in ringing them needed replacement.

Pat Hoslet, maintenance manager at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in Green Bay, stands next to a bell in the cathedral’s north tower. The bell, weighing around 3,400 pounds is named St. Paul. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

“The mechanisms to ring the bells are over 50 years old and are broken and beyond repair,” he said in the letter.

While the bells in the south tower needed bell clappers, clapper spring assemblies and other parts, the large bell in the north tower also required a swinging wheel and frame. Funds for the bell restoration came from the Cathedral Campaign, a major funding initiative to restore the cathedral.

“In preparation for the 2018 sesquicentennial celebration of the founding of our diocese, we are attempting to put our cathedral in top form,” Fr. Dorner said in an email to The Compass. “After tuckpointing, replacing crumbling bricks, the roof and the sound system, the next priority was the bells. We believe the bells haven’t swung since the 1960s.”

According to Fr. Dorner, the cost to repair the bells was approximately $65,000. “I’m very grateful for all the help from Bishop Ricken, my brother priests, the deacons, Cindi Brawner and Josh Diedrich (from the Catholic Foundation for the Diocese of Green Bay, Inc.), and the many generous donors for making all of this possible.”

The bells, like the 135-year-old cathedral, have a history of their own.

The second smallest bell, located in the south tower, sits below the three other bells and was cast in 1854, according to Fr. Dorner. “(It) was the bell in the church that preceded our current cathedral, St. Mary’s.”

A 1958 clipping from the Green Bay Register noted that the bell was referred to as “St. John, though it bears no inscription indicating a saint’s name.”

“It was donated to the original Green Bay cathedral, St. Mary’s Church, by Judge (Morgan) Martin and was transferred to the new (cathedral) when that was completed,” the Register reported.

According to an undated parish bulletin blurb, Judge Martin “promised that he would make a present to the newly organized German congregation (St. Mary Church) if elected as a congressman. He was elected and made the present.”

The other four bells were cast in 1881 by John J. Stuckstede and Bros., of St. Louis, and are named after saints. They each feature an inscription in Latin. The largest bell, a gift from Paul Fox and others, is named St. Paul. Its inscription reads: “We call thee Paul. Change every Saul, and to Ananias, show him the way.” The second-largest bell is named St. Augustine. It includes the inscription, “With my mouth I praise God, the One and Triune, the Word made Flesh. The blessed Augustine.”

The third bell is named after St. Boniface. Its inscription reads: “Rejoice, in thy patron, he the happy one, now calls by thy sound, sons to God. He, who an apostle in life, made the light of truth faith to shine for our fathers.”

The fourth bell is inscribed, “The purity of the Virgin has added thee to the rest of the bells, now with thy aerial voice thou praisest the Virgin.”

The bells were blessed and ceremoniously run by Bishop Francis Xavier Krautbauer on Easter Sunday, 1881. However, they apparently did not meet the second bishop of Green Bay’s expectations.

A report dated July 7, 1881 stated: “The bishop is dissatisfied with the size, volume and tone of the new cathedral bells and will put in four heavier ones in a few days. One of those taken out, the one known as ‘Mary,’ has been sold to go to the chapel at Robinsonville; the other one, known as St. Boniface, will go to St. Martin’s Church in Casco; and the other two will remain until the arrival of the new ones.”

New bells, with the same inscriptions and patron saints, were consecrated on Sunday, Jan. 15, 1882. From the time of their installation to 1958, the bells were rung by hand. Electric mechanisms were installed on May 25, 1958.

Wear and tear took their toll on the bells’ mechanisms, requiring a major repair, which was completed earlier this month.

“The sound of the south tower bells is spectacular, as can be attested to by those who were present for the transitional diaconate ordination” on May 22, said Fr. Dorner.  The north tower bell was slated to be ready by the end of May. “We can’t wait to hear the sound of the big one, named St. Paul.  We believe it will be heard throughout downtown Green Bay,” Fr. Dorner added.

He explained that the four bells forged in 1881 will “swing together. They are in the same ‘key.’ The one cast in 1854, being in a minor key, we opted to leave stationary and will be heard for the chiming of the hour and also for funeral tolls.”

Fr. Dorner said one of the next projects at the cathedral is to restore the church organ.

Why the bells toll
Why are bells such a long-standing tradition in the religious community? An introduction from the Order of the Blessing of Bells, found in the Book of Blessings (The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minn.) gives this explanation.

“It is an ancient practice to summon the Christian people to the liturgical assembly by means of some sign or signal and also to alert them to important happenings in the local community. The peal of bells, then, is, in a way, the expression of the sentiments of the people of God as they rejoice or grieve, offer thanks or petition, gather together and show outwardly the mystery of their oneness in Christ.” (Order of the Blessing of Bells, 1305)

Related Posts

Scroll to Top