Forty years ago, on September 18, 1977, the parish presented a gift of bells to their retiring pastor, Monsignor Paul V. Heller, at a Mass of Thanksgiving “in gratitude to God for his faithful priest.” Here is the “Story of the Bells,” told by Dan Schmidt, chairman of the Bell Committee, in the October 1980 edition of Round & About St. James. (Edited for length.)
The Story of the Bells
In March 1977, during an attempt to resurrect the old bell in the tower of St. James, the Bell Committee, composed primarily of Joe Baxter, Vince McAlevy, and myself, started talking about the possibility of adding more bells.
At that time none of us had any knowledge of bells. We began making telephone calls and finally reached the I. T. Verdin Company, one of the few active companies in the world that sells and installs musical bells. A representative of the company, Frank Della Penna, a Master Carilloner with an international reputation, made an evening visit to the tower with members of the Bell Committee and met with the Men of St. James. The Board of the Men’s Club authorized the Bell Committee to proceed with a plan to replace the old steel bell with tuned musical bells.
Brad Curry, then Men’s Club President, looked into bank financing and handled all the bell finances. The Men of St. James were willing to assume complete financing, and several members signed notes, putting their personal resources on the line.
The reason behind the bells became Monsignor Heller. He would soon be retiring, and no one knew what his next move would be. We all thought it would be meaningful to give him something while he was still here and, knowing his love for St. James, something that would be a part of the parish and a permanent remembrance of him. But we wanted the gift to be a complete surprise, and we had to proceed with caution.
The size of the bell tower and the supporting frame already in place meant that a bell carillon could be installed. It was decided to install a three-bell peal, to be rung manually. The bells were cast by the Petit & Fritsen Company in Holland, a company that dates back more than four and a half centuries! Each bell is totally unique: a separate mold is made for every bell cast and, after the casting, is broken. The metal, a mixture of pure copper and tin, is brought to 3000° and poured into the molds. The decorations and inscription are formed by the “lost wax” process where the artist and sculptor use a form of wax to mold the dedication and ornamentation by hand. As the molten metal is poured into the mold, the wax melts and the metal takes its place.
The three St. James bells are named Paul, John, and Minnie after Monsignor Heller and his parents. The naming of bells is a required practice in the Catholic Church and ties into the ceremony of blessing the bells. The dedication of Paul, the largest, was composed by Vince McAlevy. We were told that it is the longest inscription ever put on a bell of this size.
The bells arrived by boat and truck in Alexandria on September 12, 1977. Although it was 10:30 p.m., an excited bunch of committee members went down to the warehouse to look them over. On Saturday, September 17, Joe Baxter and I went down with our trucks to pick them up. There were many curious stares as we drove through the area with our treasures on open trucks. The committee and helpers spent the afternoon cleaning the grime of the trip from the bells and polishing them. That evening, while cooperative priests spirited Monsignor out to dinner, the bells were brought into the church and secreted in the baptistery (now the St. Anthony chapel). All the equipment necessary to move and install the ponderous bells was provided through the generosity of Bob Schwarzmann, a former parishioner.
Next morning, floral artist Bob Schottler decorated the bells with flowers and ribbons. The traditional ceremony of blessing the bells was incorporated into a Mass concelebrated by Bishops Russell, Hodges, and Unterkoefler and forty other priests. The bells were brought forward during the offertory by the committee members and presented to an astonished and delighted Monsignor Heller. The rest is history.