Long-forgotten bell rings in school’s rich history

Missourian Photo

The schoolyard bell, its distinguishing mark — a two-inch crack at its base — and the story behind it might have been lost to history, leaving it as just a relic from a bygone era similar to any school bell at a flea market or antique store near you.

But then, Leona Scharfenberg stepped forward with the unique and interesting backstory.

In celebration of her 95th birthday, Scharfenberg returned the bell to her alma mater, St. John the Baptist (Gildehaus) School in Villa Ridge, where teaching sisters rang it for at least 53 years, dating to the Ursuline Sisters' arrival in 1908. The clang, clang, clang signified the start and end of the school day, and everything in between — prayer, lunch, recess, etc.

Fancy electronic bells of the then-new school building rendered the old bell obsolete in 1961. So, after ringing it for the last time and with no further use for it, Most Precious Blood Sister Aniceta Loeffler gave it to Scharfenberg, a parishioner and the school's first-ever cook. The "new" school had a cafeteria, whereas the old one did not.

Sister Aniceta also wondered why St. John the Baptist's bell resembled the Liberty Bell, with the crack and all. Scharfenberg, nee Straatmann, knew all about that from family lore, and it just so happened that Sister Aniceta inquired while the two men who caused the crack as boys in about 1920 — her brother Ben and Joe Ley — were working that day on cabinetry in the new digs.

"She said, 'By the way, I've been hearing this story about you guys getting into a fight and breaking the bell ... so which one of you guys broke it?'" Scharfenberg said, with a laugh. "And just like in unison, they said, 'We know we did it, but we don't know who.' ... Now that was fast thinking!"

"We had heard about it at home; it was just known," added Scharfenberg, who was the ninth of 12 children. "We knew one of them broke it, but not which one."

Boys scuffling over the bell wasn't really surprising, considering students routinely vied for the honor of ringing it. Perhaps they figured both were equally responsible for the crack ... or maybe they never really knew which one of them to finger. However, it also wouldn't be surprising if they actually knew who was responsible and kept the secret when Sister Aniceta asked about it 40 years later.

"I guess the punishment must not have been too good," Scharfenberg said, laughing, adding that Sister Aniceta had told her to take good care of the bell. She did as told, putting the bell under glass first in her home (and away from her seven children) and on a shelf in her senior-living apartment in Washington.

Her niece Laverne Schwoeppe didn't even know she had it until last year when Scharfenberg asked if she thought the school would want it back.

Schwoeppe quickly answered in the affirmative: "I said, 'I think they might!'"

Schwoeppe used a little steel wool, metal cleaner and elbow grease to remove the tarnish and make the bell shine like new. Principal Gary Menke put it in a place of honor in the school office, giving current students a connection with the school's rich history. Founded in 1839 as a mission by the Society of Jesus, St. John the Baptist added Catholic education in the 1850s, according to archdiocesan records.

"We tell the children, that after all of these years, this parish, this school, this campus still holds fine memories for people who want to come back here and celebrate that," Menke said. "Now, they're part of that generational fabric."

Menke organized the celebration in Scharfenberg's honor, an assembly in the cafeteria — Scharfenberg's stomping grounds until 1968 — with students, faculty, staff and pastor Father Tim Foy joining about 24 of Scharfenberg's family and friends. The students sang happy birthday and gave her handmade cards; the family treated the students to doughnuts.

Scharfenberg joked that time out of class and doughnuts — more so than the bell — was the true appeal for the students. All kidding aside, though, she described the bell and its unique history as "unbelievable," adding that there was no question that she'd take the opportunity to ring it on that special day.

"It was my turn," she said, smiling. 

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