Richland church gets its voice back thanks to new bell tower


CLICK HERE to see a gallery of photos from this event.

Much as the pealing strains of a brass bell summon the faithful to worship each Sunday, efforts to place that bell in a safe, new tower helped strengthen the bonds of an already tight community.

The people of St. Jude parish in Richland planned, worked and waited for about two years to hear their 700-pound bell ring out after the old wooden tower was deemed unsafe.

Bishop W. Shawn Mc­Knight offered Mass in St. Jude Church and blessed the new steel tower on Jan. 26.

“By this blessing,” he prayed with the Sign of the Cross, “accept this bell into Your service. May its voice direct our hearts toward You and prompt us to come gladly to this church to experience the presence of Christ, listen to Your word, offer You our prayers, and both in joy and in sorrow be friends to one another.”

Father John Groner, pastor of the Richland parish and of neighboring St. Robert Bellarmine parish in St. Robert, then cast holy water onto the steel structure.

Parishioner Dominic Pemberton tolled the bell as the names of deceased parishioners dating back to the parish’s founding 48 years ago were read.

“People say they can hear that bell all around town,” parishioner Steve Bunch noted.

Out of nowhere

St. Jude parish was founded in 1972 and includes parts of Pulaski, Camden and Laclede counties.

Mr. Bunch said no one seems to remember how this bell got to Richland.

Its inscription says it was cast in 1938 by the Henry Stuckstede Bell Foundry Co. in St. Louis.

Mr. Bunch searched newspaper archives in the local library to no avail.

The caption to a 1982 photo in The Catholic Missourian showing the bell in its wooden tower simply says the bell “was a gift to the parish.”

The wooden posts and braces were solid when they were set into place, but at least 35 years of exposure to the elements eventually took their toll.

“One day, Dominic was out ringing the bell and I could see the tower moving,” Mr. Bunch recalled. “I asked him to hold off until I had a chance to take a closer look.”

Mr. Bunch used a drill at several heights to gauge the strength and density of the pillars.

“The drill went right through them,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t know what was holding the bell up there.”

Parishioners searched for someone who could help them lower the bell and and yoke assembly — 1,000 pounds — to the ground and dismantle the tower.

The solution turned out to be close to home.

“Lo and behold, a fellow just around the corner at the main intersection in town has a tree-trimming service,” said Mr. Bunch.

That man, Jason Lobland, brought his equipment to the church. A day later, the bell was safely stored on the back of the property, along with plenty of firewood.

Fr. Groner and Mr. Bunch almost immediately set about planning for a more substantial tower.

“We had the bell there and we had the desire,” Mr. Bunch noted. “I’ve been involved in different facets of fabrication for most of my life, so I took it on as a challenge to make this work.”

Heavy metal

Mr. Bunch started researching how bells are properly mounted and how they’re supposed to ring.

“I got enough information to make a simple design,” he said.

The process involved input from many parishioners.

“The whole parish got together and we decided what the tower was going to look like,” said Fr. Groner.

“It brought the parish community together,” Mr. Bunch stated. “We’d sit and talk things out. That unto itself was a good experience.”

He traveled to Jefferson City several times to confer with structural engineers at Delong’s Inc., a steel fabricating company.

“They gave engineering advice on the thickness of the concrete and on the structure itself so that it would be built properly and hold up,” said Mr. Bunch.

Craig Buechter, a sales representative for Delong’s and a member of St. Thomas the Apostle parish in St. Thomas said building the tower was a relatively small project for the company.

“It’s not something we typically make,” he said. “We typically do things like buildings and barns. This was kind of a pretty job for us — a little more intricate.”

High and mighty

Through research, Mr. Bunch determined that attaching a bell of that size and weight to a wheel 66 inches across would provide the proper leverage for ringing it.

He found someone in Richland who could fabricate the wheel and the proper bracing for it, and attached it to the bell.

Meanwhile, Fr. Groner and several parishioners discovered in the church attic the counterweighted hammer that was originally used to toll the bell in its previous location.

The long-awaited tower arrived in Richland in pieces, ready to assemble.

Mr. Bunch and two other parishioners dug holes to the correct depth and secured the steel pillars in concrete.

Using 16-inch-long, three-quarter-inch bolts, they assembled the main structure one day and the protective canopy over the bell two weeks later.

The canopy matches the roof of the church.

“Elegant reminders”

Bishop McKnight noted in his homily that the association of bells and churches dates back to antiquity.

“By the ringing of bells, Christian people have been summoned to church for important happenings,” he said. “The peal of bells expresses the joyful sentiments of the people, as at the end of a special Mass or wedding; and the distinct toll of a funeral bell intones our grief and sorrow over the loss of a loved one.”

He asserted that bells are tools of evangelization, extending the proclamation of the Gospel to wherever they can be heard.

“They are beautiful, elegant reminders of the presence of God and His assembly, the Church, in the community,” the bishop stated. “And their association with timekeeping reminds us that all time belongs to God.”

It tolls for thee

Two things surprised Mr. Bunch the first time he tried the bell in its new tower — how loud and clear it sounds, and how easy it is to make it ring.

It had been very difficult to work the bell into motion on the old tower.

“You used to have to jump up and pull on the rope to get the bell moving,” Fr. Groner noted. “But now, an adult or even a child can pull it and it will ring.”

“It came out fantastic, absolutely fantastic,” said Mr. Bunch. “I think people are happy with it.”

Pulling on the rope attached to the wheel makes the bell swing back and forth in its yoke, the clapper striking the inside lip of the bell and producing a melodic tone that echoes off the faraway hills.

Pulling the other rope strikes the bell with the counterweighted hammer, creating a more subdued tone.

“Church bells are designed to have a pleasant sound to ring out the glory of God and let people know it’s time to stop and pray,” said Fr. Groner.

“Even in times of sadness, their tolling reminds us of the abiding presence of the Lord in our life,” he said.

The bishop sent the people forth with a blessing: “In His mercy, may God grant that when He calls you to this church through the clear voice of this bell, you will listen attentively to His word.”

Several people took turns ringing the bell after Mass.