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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.
Dedication and blessing of the bells occurred at a St. Joseph’s Day Mass on March 19, 1900. One hundred and seven years later, the bells still ring for church services, funerals, weddings, and special occasions. The ringing of the church bells also reminds some people at Edina of tragedy and the fragility of life. Five years after the bells were added to the steeple, William Weisher, a young man from a beloved family in the congregation and also the church architect’s son, was making repairs to the church steeple when he fell to the tower floor. Laying there with crushed bones and little chance of being rescued, he managed to get ahold of the church bell ropes and began ringing the heaviest bells. Help soon arrived, but William passed away from blood poisoning the next day.
The “Good Bell”
When emigrants fled Germany from religious, economic, and political persecution, many of them made homes in Missouri. St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church was built on little more than these immigrants’ faith and determination. In 1882, the charter members of the group—which included farmers, mercantile store owners, the postmaster, and a freight hauler—drafted a constitution formally making themselves a congregation. They discussed two possible locations for a church: one between Cole Camp and neighboring Mora, and one in Cole Camp itself. Cole Camp won out, and the group set up a building contract for a church.
For the church dedication later that year, members of the congregation were responsible for finding the necessary items to fill the empty house of worship. Louis Grother was in charge of finding the bell that would be placed in the tower. He reported back finding a “good bell” that had a two year guarantee for, at the time, a not-so-meager ninety dollars. The pastor and congregation decided to take the risk, and the “good bell” is still in use in the church tower today, more than 125 years later.
Hammers of a different kind
The First Congregational United Church of Christ began as an accident when in 1870 Reverend J. H. Harwood, a traveling minister, missed a connection to another town. When heavy rains kept him from traveling further, he held services in a hardware store the following day. Five years later, a congregation of forty-five members born of that service, finished building its new church.
Through the years the building has been remodeled, renovated, and enlarged. The bell tower has proven to be the most resilient part of the church. In 1880, the church was struck by lightning during a severe storm and the tower was badly damaged. It was quickly renovated and restored.
But disaster struck again on May 4, 2003, when a tornado ripped through the town and sliced the tower into two pieces. The church suffered more than seventy-five thousand dollars in damages, but the half-ton brass bell made it relatively unscathed through the carnage. During the storm, it was ripped from the tower and fell to the concrete below. A large crack in the sidewalk is still visible, but the bell survived the fall. The tower had to be replaced from the foundation up. The bell tower had to be reconstructed on the ground and turned out almost identical to the original. The only thing lost in the reconstruction was a little bit of height. Two months later on July 3, with the new bell tower completed and raised, the bell once again sat at home.
Changes of venue
The First Presbyterian Church at Cape Girardeau began as a small house gathering of eight members set up in 1835 by Reverend J. F. Cowan, minister of the Apple Creek Presbyterian Church in nearby Pocahontas. Dr. David Edward Young Rice took charge of the small group and began a congregation. Rice conducted the first worship service in the Washington Female Seminary, and under his leadership, the congregation purchased a lot on Lorimier Street. In 1854, the eighteen members of the First Presbyterian congregation built their first church. The original two-story church was razed in 1901 so that the new church could be built on the corner. The new church was finished a year later in 1902.
The church bell has a strong connection to the community. Upon completion of the church, the bell hung from a wooden scaffold outside the church on the street corner. The bell acted as the community fire bell, a prisoner escape alarm, and a school bell. When the congregation built a new church a few years later, the church moved the bell into a tower. The bell was moved again to the present sanctuary, dedicated in 1966.
The 153-year-old bell still rings on Sunday for church services, specialty services, such as funerals, and for commemorating community events.