Saint Mary’s bells, like bells everywhere, tell stories—of lives lived, great adventures and deep belief. But like most bells, they tend to become part of the architecture and the ambient surroundings. On rare occasions we ring them; we sing the College anthem, “The Bells of Saint Mary’s,” and the recorded carillon in the Chapel belfry marks the hours. Otherwise, we give little thought to their provenance and storied journeys.
Six bells are noted in Saint Mary’s history, and four of them are on campus today. Each has its own unique narrative in College chronicles, but the most intriguing is the saga of the oldest bell of all—an elegant bronze mission bell, cast in Mexico in 1792, that mysteriously vanished one night from its quiet corner behind Assumption Hall.
It was first acquired by Brother “Bull” Andrew White, who marketed the Christian Brothers sacramental wine to ranchers in Sonoma Valley. The bell was a gift from one of Brother Andrew’s customers, a rancher who had used it for years to call his ranch hands to meals. The bell’s origins are uncertain, but it may have been the first bell acquired by the Franciscan mission in Sonoma, established in 1823—San Francisco de Solano de Sonoma.
However, the bell’s journey to the Sonoma Mission may have included residence at the San Francisco Mission as early as the 1790s. Three of the San Francisco Mission’s bells still hang in the special openings in its front wall and are still in use.
Apparently the bell was acquired from the mission sometime before 1825 and used for a time by the San Francisco Presidio. Then, in answer to an urgent plea from Fray José Altimira to Governor Luís Argüello, the bell was transferred to the Sonoma Mission in 1826. (Altimira had received some Russian bells, made in China, as gifts from the Russians at Fort Ross. But what we now think of as the missing Saint Mary’s bell seems to have been the first authentic mission bell Altimira had acquired for his Sonoma Mission.)
Delivery of the bell destined for the Sonoma Mission was entrusted to a British sailor named William Richardson—who had resigned, or was discharged by his captain or jumped ship; it’s not entirely clear which—for neglecting his duties in order to dance all night at a fiesta in the Presidio. The journey from the Presidio to Sonoma to deliver the bell was Richardson’s honeymoon “cruise” with his new bride, the daughter of the Presidio commandant!
When the Sonoma Mission property was dispersed between 1834 and the mid-1850s—after the missions were secularized and General Mariano Vallejo had assumed administrative control of Sonoma and the surrounding region—the bell was likely acquired by a local resident, and ultimately, by the rancher who eventually gave it to the Christian Brothers in the 1930s.
The bell was installed at the Christian Brothers Novitiate and was used initially for ringing “strokes” announcing various religious exercises, and later was retired to the cloister garden.
When the Navy closed its Pre-Flight Training School at Saint Mary’s Moraga campus after WWII, the wartime student building, now Assumption Hall, was converted to a Scholasticate residence for Brothers who were earning their bachelor’s degrees at the College. A few years later, sometime during 1957–58, the bell was given to the Scholasticate. Then-Director Brother Raphael Willeke had a campanario constructed for the bell and installed it in the Japanese garden behind Assumption Hall. Bolts holding the bell to the crossbeam of the campanario prevented it from swinging freely, so it was rung manually by pulling the bell’s tongue with a rope to strike the sides of the bell.
One summer night in 1968, when Assumption Hall was emptied for renovations and unattended, the heavy bell and its sturdy campanario disappeared. An extensive search of the campus and an eloquent article by Brother Dennis Goodman, director of the library, in the May 8, 1970, Contra Costa Sun were both unsuccessful in turning up the bell.
The voice of this Saint Mary’s bell is apparently now silent, leaving only apprehensive hope that it was not stolen by a scrap metal dealer and may yet be found in a forgotten corner of some nearby garden.
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