The Bells of Saint Mary's - Aren't Bells at All

Quick: What weighs 1,900 pounds, can make a tremendous noise — but rarely does, unless hit with a stick — and was once cemented to a San Francisco sidewalk?

If you guessed "the Saint Mary's College bell!" then you win the grand trivia prize of 2010.  And certainly, you should win an opportunity to wield the baton and produce a sound we in Moraga no longer hear.

In a recent visit with Brother Raphael Patton, a mathematics professor and the unofficial repository of Saint Mary's College history, the truth was made known: "The bell in the bell tower?  The one you hear?  It doesn't exist," he said.  "There's a loud speaker.  It's all digital."

The non-bell rings on the hour, from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.  At 9:30, The Bells of Saint Mary's (or another tune, locals swear they have heard Procul Harum's "White Shade of Pale) is played, then it shuts off.

Furthermore, Brother Raphael says, the song itself isn't even the official school song.  "In 1924, or thereabouts, we had a very, very good football team," he says, folding his hands and settling in for storytelling.  "We were playing USC in Los Angeles.  Their band director didn't know Saint Mary's song, but he knew his band was supposed to play the opponent's song.  He said, 'Let's play The Bells of Saint Mary's!' "

The team, and the college, thought it was funny.  "We picked it up," Brother Raphael says.  And then, dispelling another myth, adds, "It had nothing to do with Bing Crosby."

In 1945, Crosby took the well-known song into the stratosphere with a film of the same name.  The two events were unrelated. But SMC folklore lingers on, claiming male students sang the tune while serenading prospective brides. Brother Raphael admits, "it's a good story and a much better song than any school song ever is."

With all the mistaken attribution and a ringing bell which is not really a bell at all, it's a relief to find some facts.  

The original College Bell was ordered in 1863, when the college was established in San Francisco.  "The bell came from Troy, New York. It had to come from New York," Brother Raphael explains, "because, well, just imagine California at that time: they hardly had enough to eat, let alone cast iron bells."

In 1989 the college moved to what Brother Raphael calls "The Athens of the Bay area: Oakland."  Another story unfolds.  "We left the bell behind, and Saint John's Church grabbed it. They glued it to the sidewalk.  They didn't want to use it: it became a decoration."

All was fine, until the college decided they wanted the bell back.  Negotiations dragged.  "A group of students said, 'We'll get it!'  They had a truck and a plan — they were all set to steal it!"  Brother Raphael says.

Fortunately, the college resolved the dispute without its student body resorting to grand theft.  The original bell, although rarely rung, today hangs peacefully in Korth Tower.

Lamorindans use the "Bells" at St. Mary's to guide their day, tolling the hours and occasionally a little more. Do you hear them?

By Lou Fancher
Lamorinda Patch, September 13, 2010