The toll of evangelization: Historic bells at Sts. Peter and Paul Church call people to God, faith, prayer

Standing inside the bell tower that overlooks much of St. Louis, Phil Dravage demonstrated the path a new striker will take to impact a bell. The toll will will resonate over Soulard from Sts. Peter and Paul Church's steeple towers, a monument to the countless German immigrants who built the church and neighborhood.

These bells have not functioned correctly for decades, but were scheduled to proclaim the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day in their full glory.

New strikers, up to 4-feet long, replace clappers that once rang swinging bells, a process that put stress on the tower built in 1890. New bolts holding the bells to the yoke replace the originals that could have broken because of severe corrosion. Combined, the church's five bells weigh nearly 15,000 pounds. The one Dravage was working on weighs three tons.

Along with the stained-glass windows and Stations of the Cross, the bells, made at the Stuckstede foundry in St. Louis and installed in 1891, are artistic treasures of the church, valued at more than $300,000.

Father Bruce H. Forman, pastor of the parish, sees the repair of the bell structure as an opportunity for evangelization — as the bells call people to God, faith and prayer. In a letter to parishioners and supporters of the parish, Father Forman wrote that "I would like to draw attention to the church's presence not only visually but also aurally — on the hour during the day, before Masses, funerals, weddings, etc., reminding people of the church's presence and God's love throughout the day. And some may find hearing the church bells as an invitation to pray."

Father Forman also sent letters to residents of the Soulard neighborhood, informing them of the bell-ringing and inviting them to Mass on Christmas — the inaugural bell ringing — or to stop by another time.

The church is "an architectural gem" and many neighbors have never been inside it, Father Forman noted: "They know the presence of the church from the outside, but now we can get them inside."

The bells "have not had a chance for decades to show their beauty because of the danger of collapse," Father Forman said.

The bells are the same type as those in Elizabeth Tower, commonly called Big Ben, the clock tower at the Palace of Westminster in London. The bells in Soulard are named: Sts. Peter and Paul, 6,000 pounds; Joseph, 3,400 pounds; Mary, 2,400 pounds; John, 1,500 pounds; and Francis de Sales, 1,100 pounds and named after St. Francis de Sales Oratory, which was an outgrowth of Sts. Peter and Paul as German immigrants moved west.

The work is being done by The Verdin Company of Cincinnati and Schaeffer Electric of St. Louis. A fundraising campaign raised $25,000 and the archdiocese provided a grant of $25,000 from its parish emergency assistance fund, which receives funding from the Annual Catholic Appeal.

In the early 1900s, the parish was the largest west of the Mississippi River with a membership of 6,000 and enrollment of 1,500 in its school. The parish was organized in 1849 and a frame church constructed soon afterward. A brick church was completed in 1853 and the current stone church of Gothic design was begun in 1873 and dedicated two years later. Today, the parish stresses prayer, fellowship and service with a vibrant community focusing on service to the poor and serving as a strong presence and anchor of hope in a historic neighborhood. 

St. Francis de Sales

The restoration of the bells at Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in the Soulard neighborhood of south St. Louis were done about the same time as a similar project at a church to its west that was founded in 1867 by German immigrant dairy farmers who had been members of Sts. Peter and Paul.

The four bells at St. Francis de Sales Oratory were restored in time to ring on Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception. The work also included making all four clock faces operable. Each bell cost $6,000 to restore. One bell has been paid for by one of the families at the oratory, but donors are still needed for the other three bells.

The bells at St. Francis de Sales are named Christ the King, St. Francis de Sales, St. Louis and the "1869" bell from the original church of St. Francis de Sales Parish.

Clock faces were added to the steeple following the 1917 anniversary celebration of the founding of the parish in 1867.

Consecrated in 1908, the present building is considered an architectural gem. As a prime example of Gothic Revival style, St. Francis de Sales came to be known as "The Cathedral of South St. Louis." In 1978 it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. With demographic shifts toward suburbanization in the latter part of the 20th century, the majestic church fell into disrepair and was in danger of being shuttered.

In 2005 St. Francis de Sales Parish was closed by the Archdiocese of St. Louis and was consolidated with another parish. The church building and campus were given to the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest to maintain and administer the sacraments according to the 1962 Roman Missal. Today it is the center of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite.

The oratory announced the kickoff of a fundraising campaign, "Tradition for Tomorrow," in 2008 to restore the church building. The steeple tower, which was puling away from the church foundation, was the target of the first phase of the work.

An explanation published in the parish bulletin noted that bells are not employed merely to call the faithful to church and to prayer. They are "a sort of sacramental to which the prayers of the Church confer a power to chase away the demons and evil spirits," the item noted. The blessing of bells is performed by using the Oil of the Sick, which are used not only to exorcise but also to fortify. 

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