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Towering achievement: Historic church bell rings again

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Cathy Dobson

When the official bell ringer of Our Lady of Mercy arrived at church to summon parishioners to mass last November, the ropes on the 2,000-pound bell wouldn’t budge.

For the first time in 152 years, the bell fell silent.

On closer inspection, caretaker Chris Burley discovered an iron yoke had snapped causing the bell to fall ten inches into a wooden crib.

“Luckily it wasn’t damaged,” said Burley who has worked on major restoration projects at the church.

Our Lady of Mercy Church at the corner of London Road and Christina Street is one of Sarnia's most iconic buildings. Glenn Ogilvie
Our Lady of Mercy Church at the corner of London Road and Christina Street is one of Sarnia’s most iconic buildings.
Glenn Ogilvie

As he explored solutions he became determined to find a solution rather than turn to the modern electronics often used to call people to church these days.

“We wanted to keep it authentic,” he said. “There’s so much history wrapped up in this bell.”

Our Lady of Mercy’s bronze bell was manufactured in New York at the Meneely Bell Foundry, the same company that made Philadelphia’s famous Liberty Bell. It was installed in 1864, its cost partially covered by fundraisers organized by Father Edmund Kilroy.

Kilroy, an Irish-American priest at OLM, was asked by President Abraham Lincoln to become the first chaplain of the U.S. Navy, but came instead to Sarnia to care for his ailing parents.

Burley is ardent about OLM’s history and wanted to find an affordable way to return the bell to working order.

He scouted around for a foundry and ultimately approaching Paul Purvis and Deanna Sandrin at Sandrin Services in Sarnia.

Neil Beaumont, the company’s shop supervisor, took the lead on design and construction of a new bell rig.

It was the most unique project he’s ever tackled, Beaumont said.

Burley disassembled and cut up the old rig so it could be carried piece-by-piece from the bell tower for Beaumont to replicate in steel. It was an arduous task because the tower is fitted with a man door that measures only two-feet by two-feet.

“Neil and Paul and I designed a yoke, wheel and cradles that were stronger, lighter and operate with much less effort,” said Burley.

The church bell was cast in 1864 by the same foundry that made Philadelphia's famous Liberty Bell. Glenn Ogilvie
The church bell was cast in 1864 by the same foundry that made Philadelphia’s famous Liberty Bell.
Glenn Ogilvie

Their biggest challenge was building something that could be disassembled to pass through the man door and reassembled inside the tower. It also had to be strong enough to hold a 2,000-pound swinging bell, said Beaumont.

In mid-April, Sandrin’s delivered the new rig and Burley went to work with Vic Aguiar and OLM volunteers Owen McAlea and Gerry Laliberte to install it.

On May 21, churchgoers were once again greeted by the double-strike of the swinging bell. It was back in service and bell ringers Ed Bednar and Ted Pangan were back on duty.

“It moves so effortlessly; it’s like butter,” Burley said with a smile. “And it’s so strong, there’s no reason to think it won’t last indefinitely.”

Burley intends to place a plaque in the tower crediting Sandrins for helping ensure parishioners will be welcomed by the ringing bell for generations to come.

“It’s a legacy project because it will be here long after we are all gone,” he said.

The church tower was once used as a lookout for ships on Lake Huron and the St. Clair River. Glenn Ogilvie
The church tower was once used as a lookout for ships on Lake Huron and the St. Clair River.
Glenn Ogilvie
The new bell cradle made locally by Sandrin Services had to be designed so its pieces could pass through a small access door to the bell tower for reassembly. Glenn Ogilvie
The new bell cradle made locally by Sandrin Services had to be designed so its pieces could pass through a small access door to the bell tower for reassembly.
Glenn Ogilvie
A pyramid of timber supports the bell in the tower of Our Lady of Mercy Church. Glenn Ogilvie
A pyramid of timber supports the bell in the tower of Our Lady of Mercy Church.
Glenn Ogilvie

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