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SLOJX Mission Bells 1 MISSION BELLS Heard a new sound from Downtown recently? Have you been in the Plaza at noon to hear the Mission bells ring sacred patterns that are hundreds of years old? The bells of Mission San Luis Obispo are installed and in working order. If you haven’t experienced the new bells, don’t panic…they are guaranteed for 200 years! Cast in Holland by the prestigious firm of Petit and Frisen (founded in the 17th century), the bronze bells fill all five niches in the bell loft for the first time since the mid-1870s. Named after the first five missions, the largest (748 pounds) is Diego followed by Carlos (429 pounds), then Antonio (297 pounds) and Gabriel (224 pounds). Last, but certainly not least, is Luis weighing a mere 158 pounds. A sixth bell found in the Garden is named Ave Virgo Maria (Blessed Virgin Mary). The decision to purchase permitted the preservation of the three old bells as well as a return to the ringing of five bells. While the sound is different from the old ones as each bell has its own pitch, the effort to ring five, rather than three, bells will require strength and practice. The bells received an official welcome on April 30 when Bishop Sylvester D. Ryan of the Diocese of Monterey blessed the five in a solemn ceremony held in the Mission Gardens. For her weekly program, Picture the Past, Joan Sullivan captured the arrival, unloading, testing, installation and blessing of the bells. Maino Construction and Dewaine’s Crane Service donated their time for the bell placements. It was an unusual sight to watch the crane crawl up the front steps to deliver the bells. Additionally, the careful removal of the old bells was recorded for posterity. The program is the only recorded documentation of the historic event other than photographs. What she was unable to record were the two years devoted to seeking, drawing specifications, and ordering the bell by a conscientious bell committee composed of parish members. Additional funds were donated to provide for plaques…the most visible placed near the entrance to the church. To ring the new bells as well as practice the additional patterns available with more bells, a cadre of bell ringers has been practicing the intricate ringing procedures which take both patience and strength…plenty of it. Various pulls have been used over the years while the current ones are straps with webbing for ease of wrapping around the bell ringer hands. The five are held by the bell ringer…three in one hand and two in the other… and pulled in a sequence to produce the sound of the prescribed pattern. The strength of each pull creates the volume. Begun by Florentino Najer, the earliest known bell ringer, and continued by the legendary Gregario Silverio, the two men rang the old Mission bells for a combined total of over 100 years. Before he died in 1954, Silverio taught the ancient art to his granddaughter who tolled the somber funeral sequences for her grandfather’s last Mass. A few other bell ringers have followed Silverio. 2 Currently there are men and women who practice the ringing. Each member of the Guild provides a different…sometimes very slight…tone depending on the skill and dexterity of the ringer. The bells are regularly rung before each Mass on Saturday afternoon and Sunday. While today’s bells are used primarily for Masses, the padres used bells in a variety of ways. Bells announced the start of a new day as well as its end and to call the neophytes to assemble for meals, instruction, or religious requirements. Bells greeted an important visitor as well as noting their departure. A funeral or fire was made known by different rings. Imagine how far the bells would be heard without the noise and obstructions of vehicles and buildings! The earliest sketches of Mission San Luis (1850) depict the bell loft with the five arched openings over the entrance. The original has been replaced with the current one being built in 1936. Indeed, the combination portico and bell loft is unique among the 21 missions. It is neither a campanile (a separate building) nor a campanario (a wall with bell openings). The old bells have not been forgotten. Today they are displayed in a specially designed monument by Bob Vessely and Pierre Rademaker in the Mission Garden. For the first time, most of us will be able to see these reminders of the past up close as the bell loft is off-limits to all but the bell ringers. The old bells – two date from 1818 – may still be rung for special occasions. The monument is a gift from Maino Construction in memory of Mike Maino. At a cost of $55,000. raised by donations, expenses were reduced by the gifts of engineer Robert Vessely’s structural analysis of the bell loft, Pierre Rademaker’s design of the monument, DeWaine’s Crane Service, and Thoma Electrical that provided illumination for the Garden bell monument as well as planned exterior lighting for the bell loft. More information? slodocent@yahoo.com Thanks to bell ringer and historian Matthew Herrera for his assistance.