August 10, 2012

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Bells across Missouri ring out for more than a century

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once wrote that “bells are the voice of the church; they have tones that touch and search the hearts of young and old.” Church bells aren’t merely the voice of the church; they often become the voice of a community as well. They’ve long been a signal of reflection, remembrance, and resilience. Throughout Missouri, these bells have been ringing for more than a century, and their chimes reveal a varied history.

Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Regina Coeli


Migrating from Switzerland in 1873, Abbot Frowin Conrad envisioned a monastic community in Missouri with a church “as dignified as possible” to serve the needs of the Irish and German settlers in the area. He played a large role in developing Conception Abbey, including its architecture, as he decided the Romanesque style was better suited to the classic simplicity he hoped for in the monastery. On May 20, 1883, the monks laid the cornerstone of the church. Construction on the church wrapped up eight years later.

Tragedy struck a few years later when a tornado damaged the church, but the monks quickly picked up the pieces and added the now famous murals that adorn the interior. Two sprawling bell towers were completed in 1896.

The church became the first basilica west of the Mississippi River in 1941, when Pope Pius XII designated it a minor basilica in recognition of its dignity, historical significance, and importance as a center for spirituality.

Five bells of varying weights, obtained from the Stuckstede Foundry at St. Louis, are stored in the north tower. They are named from lightest to heaviest Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Regina Coeli, which is also a prayer titled for the Virgin Mary. The bells are rung by monks six times a day to call their brothers to prayer and Mass. The number of bells rung depends on the liturgical rank of the day. Matthew and Mark ring on ordinary days, and Luke joins in for feasts or holy days commemorating events or people.

John and Regina Coeli are added for solemnities, principal holy days for events in the lives of Jesus, Mary, or the saints. The largest bells, John and Regina Coeli, have tollers or hammers that knock against the stationary bell. John tolls when a monk passes away and for other funerals, while Regina Coeli tolls when an abbot dies.

Northeast Missouri’s Tallest Tower


The first official Catholic Mass held at Edina took place in June 1843 when Father Thomas Cusack arrived in town. The Mass occurred in a small family home. As settlers continued to move into the area, the need for a church building became apparent. First came the tiny “log church” in 1844, which was replaced the next decade by a larger brick building. After migration skyrocketed following the Civil War, the brick structure was no longer suitable either.

In 1872, construction on St. Joseph Catholic Church began. Architect and designer Louis Weishar designed the church to accommodate the needs of the parish as it grew into the future. The church dedication occurred in 1875, but renovations and additions continued for several years. In 1890, construction on the church steeple ended, making the tower, at two hundred feet, the tallest in northeast Missouri. The bell that had been rung for services was placed in the church steeple, and the congregation began a search for new bells that could be heard all over town. Members of the congregation soon donated three bells—two bells for general tolling and one bell for funerals—to the church.

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