Russian Mystery Bell of the San Fernando Mission
By Father Andrew Harrison
Source: St Luke Web Site - Date: December 9th, 2002
As you walk through the serenely beautiful gardens of the San Fernando
Mission in Southern California, surrounded by blossoming flowers and trees, you will notice
a medley of church bells of all sizes. When you enter the courtyard at the entrance to the
restored Mission church, you will notice a statue of Father Lasuen, the founder of the
Mission. Directly across the yard, as if the statue is looking at it, hangs a small bell.
Monsignor Francis Weber, the archivist of the Mission, describes this bell as a "mystery
bell." What makes the bell mysterious is that no one knows for sure how this bell came to
be in the possession of the Mission. The small bell, weighing only about 150 pounds, is
not Spanish. By its shape, design, decoration and sound, it is definitely a Russian bell.
There was an inscription, which, after being affected by the wind and rain of Southern
California, is totally worn away. When the bell was first discovered in an orange grove
on the Camulos Rancho in 1920, the severely worn inscription could barely be deciphered.
According to Mrs. Alice Harriman, the person who unearthed it, the inscription, written in
Old Russian said:
In the year of 1796, in the month of January, this bell was cast on
the Island of Kodiak by the blessing of Archimandrite Joaseph, during the sojourn of
Monsignor Weber says that the highly prized bell was in the possession
of the deteriorating San Fernando Mission in 1860. It was then removed and buried at the
Del Velle Rancho to protect it from vandals. After its rediscovery by Mrs. Harriman, it
was taken to the Los Angeles orphanage. From there it was returned to the Mission in 1948
and hung in the courtyard under the portico.
The bell has a series of bars called cannons which form what looks like
a crown on the top. Around the side there are frieze bands which have the appearance of
lace. These may have enclosed the worn away inscription. A crack runs its entire length
from top to bottom. This crack has been repaired possibly by a Russian method of pouring
molten metal into the crack after it was widened and heated almost to the melting point.
In 1849, after secularization when all the missions were taken over by
the State of California, the last official Mission inventory was taken. At that time the
Mission had six bells. If the Russian bell was among the six then it could have been sold
to the Mission by John Sutter after he purchased Fort Ross in 1842. Fort Ross, or Rus
after the ancient name of the Slavic tribes, was the Russian colony in Northern California
located about 50 miles north of San Francisco.
There is a tradition that the bell has been at the San Fernando Mission
since 1815. If this is true, there could be only two possible sources for the bell. On
Santa Rosa Island there was a colony of Russian hunters who could have had the bell. This
is unlikely because there is no record of a church on the Island. The only other
possibility is related to a visit to San Francisco by Grand Chamberlain to the Czar,
Nikolai Rezanov, in 1806.
In the San Fernando Mission, this bell has always had special
significance. It is seen as a symbol of the connecting link between the Roman Catholic
and the Eastern Orthodox Churches. It is also a reminder of their separation since the
Great Schism of 1054 AD. The Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church both
consider themselves to be the only true representative of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic
church. Many attempts have been made to heal the division but other than informal
gestures of unity by Popes and Patriarchs, the division still remains. Over this period,
the relations between the two churches have gone from agreements to seek total unity to
open hostility leading to tragic deaths caused by religious fanatics. The first Martyr of
the American Orthodox Church was an native Alaskan named Tchounagnak (Peter) who died in a California prison.
According to oral reports he was tortured in an attempt to bring about his conversion.
It was at a time when the relationship between the two churches was
cordial, that the story of the bell unfolds. Spain was protecting her vast colonial
empire, worried about the incursions of the Americans. California was an outpost
controlled by a chain of six missions extending from San Diego in the South to San
Francisco in the North. Russia was reaching the end of her expansion across Siberia and
wanted a piece of the action in America. A colony had been established on Kodiak Island,
Alaska in late July 1784, under the leadership of Gregory Shelikov. Upon returning to
Russia, he left Evstrat Delarov, a Greek, in charge. He was replaced by the famous
Alexander Baranov called the Lord of the North. Shelikov greatly exaggerated his
successes in America, hoping he could win for his company a complete fur trading monopoly
in Alaska from Catherine the Great. He even visited a monastery giving ten shares in the
company to persuade church officials to send missionaries to the colony. He told them
that there were thousands of natives waiting for conversion. He promised complete
support, including food, clothing, shelter and a newly completed church building.
After traveling over 9 months and 7,327 miles, 10 missionaries arrived
in Kodiak on September 24, 1794. The new mission under the leadership of Archmandrite
Joaseph (an Archimandrite is a title of authority given to a monastic priest), included
four priests, one deacon, two monks and two readers. Almost immediately, there was a
conflict between Archimandrite Joaseph and Alexander Baranov, the manager. Father Joaseph
blamed Baranov for the lack of a church, which Shelikov had promised. The meager rations
and poor living conditions added to the tension. The missionaries had to bunk with the
frontiersmen and search for clams on the beach. The new influx of settlers put great
strains on the already limited provisions. Baranov was trying to hold the colony together
while trying to pacify Father Joaseph. He immediately began the construction of the
promised church. Within two years it was complete and ready for the dedication. He even
had the colonial blacksmith Vasil Shaposhnikoff cast a bell.
The casting of a bell must have been quite a project. A bell requires a
critical composition of copper and tin. The smaller the bell, the greater the amount of
tin. If there is too much tin, the bell becomes very brittle and can easily crack. Before
Baranov became manager in Alaska, he owned a glass manufacturing company in Irkutsk,
Siberia. It is also possible that Nikifor Baranov, who operated a bell foundry in Moscow
in the 17th Century, was one of his distant relatives. Baranov must have supervised the
casting of the bell. He stated in a report that he had copper shipped from Russia and tin
was donated by the explorer George Vancouver.
Russian bells are made by the lost wax method. First a hollow mold is
constructed from brick and clay for the inside shape of the bell. The form is made by
using a strickle board which is attached to a spindle. The strickle board or template is
the only part of the molding process which is re-usable. After the inner shape is
finished, it is covered with a thick layer of wax or tallow and a second strickle form
shapes the wax forming a false bell. Into this false wax bell are carved the decorations
and inscriptions. Then the false bell is covered with the cope. This part of the mold
requires the founder's greatest skill. A protective cover of clay is built up on top of
the false wax bell being careful not to disturb the delicately carved inscriptions. Each
layer takes 12 hours to dry. As the layers build up, flax, hair, wire and iron ribs are
embedded into the clay to prevent cracking. When the cope is finished and dry, the wax is
melted out and replaced with the molten alloy of copper and tin at a temperature of
2,150 F. The casting process is always risky. If the metal is not hot enough and
solidifies too rapidly, or if the gases cannot escape, or if the cope is not properly dry,
the bell will be useless. The master founder will always light candles in front of icons
and say prayers at the moment the metal begins to flow.
When you consider the precarious conditions of the colony, it is a
wonder that Baranov would have attempted casting a bell. There easily could have been a
flaw in the casting process which, eventually, would have caused the bell to crack.
In January 1796, the Church of Resurrection was ready for the
dedication. The ringing of the first bell cast in Alaska opened the solemn occasion.
Gathered together on that day were Alexander Baranov, Archimandrite Joaseph and the nine
missionaries along with the other members of the colony. They had little knowledge of the
turn of events which would follow in their lives. Alexander Baranov would eventually be
appointed by the Czar as Collegiate Councilor of the colony, found the city of Sitka and
extend Russian sovereignty to California. During this time, he continued to petition for
retirement only to die at sea shortly after it was granted. Archimandrite Joasoph was
consecrated as the first bishop in Alaska but was lost in the shipwreck of the Phoenix
along with two of the missionaries. Two of the other missionaries who attended the
ceremonies on that cold day in January were destined to be canonized as saints of the
Orthodox Church in America. They were the Monk Herman who was known for his miraculous
power and zeal for protecting the human rights of the native peoples and Father Juvenaly
who, within a few months after the dedication, was to give his life while preaching the
Gospel to the hostile northern tribes of Alaska.
When Grand Chamberlain Nicholas Rezanov arrived in Alaska several years
later under order of the Czar to inspect the colony, he discovered that it was not as
Shilikov described. Baranov was dealing with insurrection, mutiny, massacres by the
natives all the while trying to establish the settlement at Sitka. The supply of fresh
food had fallen so low that the settlers were dying of scurvy. Rezanov suggested to
Saranov that in order to relieve the suffering, he would attempt to establish trade with
the Spanish in California. He set sail from the newly established port at Sitka on the
Juno, a former American ship which he purchased from Captain John DeWolf. The Juno was
loaded with trade goods. It is possible that the bell was among these items of trade,
which included vestment material and other church furnishings. Baranov knew that he would
be dealing with the Friars of the California missions, because they had the necessary
supply of grain. The gift of a bell with such a sweet tone might be the spark necessary to
cement a trade agreement. Rezanov also planned to establish outposts of the colony on the
Columbia River and another just north of San Francisco. Both Rezanov and Baranov agreed
that the colony must begin to move south for agricultural reasons.
Father Jose Uria of the Franciscan order and Lieutenant Louis Arguello,
son of the commandant of the Precidio, welcomed Rezanov when he arrived in San Francisco.
The Commandant was away on business in Monterey. Rezanov presented himself with
credentials signed by the Czar and the King of Spain. When Don Jose Arguello returned, a
formal welcoming ball was planned with visitors from all of the missions in California. It
was at this ball that Nicholai Rezanov met Maria de la Concepcion Arguello, the daughter of
the Commandant. Concha (her nickname) was extremely beautiful with her dark hair and fair
skin. She was described as a rare Spanish beauty. Rezanov, with his blond hair and
dressed in his Imperial uniform, was dazzled by her poise and she with his strength and
dignity. They danced all evening and were the talk of California. With this meeting
began a love affair which could have changed the course of history. Instead of Spanish
California, it could have been Russian California. Rezanov courted and eventually proposed
to her and she accepted. They planned to be married at the San Francisco Mission and sail
to Russia where she was to be introduced to the Russian Court. There was one serious
problem. Father Uria reminded Rezanov that he was Eastern Orthodox and Concha was Roman
Catholic. They could not marry without ecclesiastical permission. An agreement was
reached with the family and Father Uria that a betrothal ceremony could take place but for
a marriage Rezanov had to return to Russia for permission. He would also need permission
from the Pope in Rome before returning to California for the wedding. The trip would take
two years. If he did not return, Concha would be free to marry another. Rezanov
established a trade agreement and traded the supplies for the needed grain and fresh food
for Alaska. It could have been that during these negotiations that the bell was presented.
One tradition has the bell being given to Concha's father, the Commandant. It is said that
he took the bell with him to Santa Barbara when he was transferred and eventually gave the
bell to the San Fernando Mission. There is also a possibility that the bell was given to
Father Jose Uria and then taken with him when he was transferred to the San Fernando
Mission in 1807.
The tragedy of this great love affair is that Rezanov never returned.
He, while trying to complete his journey in the allotted two years, came down with
pneumonia. He would not listen to this doctor but pressed on across the tundra during the
cold Siberian winter. His failing health caused the fatal fall from his horse. Rezanov
was buried in the church cemetery in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia. Concha learned about his death
six years later but never married, even though she had many suitors. Concha lived a
saintly life devoted to helping the poor and the orphaned. She eventually joined the
Dominican order at age sixty. She is buried in Benecia with the nuns of her order.
Several miracles have been attributed to her.
The mystery bell has hung under the portico at the San Fernando Mission
for 40 years. The bell, which has been a mystery bell to the Mission may be the lost bell
of the Russian Orthodox Diocese of Alaska, To the Orthodox Church in America and the
Diocese Alaska the existence of this bell and its significance is largely unknown. It
could very well be the first bell cast in Alaska for the first Orthodox Church in North
America. The two recently canonized saints of the Orthodox Church, St. Herman and St.
Juvenaly could have heard the sound of this bell when it was rung on that cold day in
January 1796. That would make it an important relic.
The bell still remains a mystery. The only way to prove that this is
the first bell cast in Alaska for the first Orthodox Church would be to locate and
decipher the inscription on the bell. Since it is totally worn away the only way would be
to have it x-rayed. Since the bell is not in the possession of the Orthodox Church it is
unlikely that this expensive process will ever be done. So chances are that it will remain
the Russian mystery bell of the San Fernando Mission.
Afonsky Bishop Gregory, The History of the Orthodox Church in Alaska, St. Herman's Theological Seminary Press, Kodiak, Alaska, 1977
Atherton, Gertrude Rezanov and Dona Concha, Frederick A. Stokes Company, New York, 1937
Bancroft, Hubert Howe, The History of California, The History Company, San Francisco, California, 1886
Bancroft, Hubert Howe, The History of Alaska, The History Company, San Francisco, California, 1886
Burr, Agnes Rush, Alaska Our Beautiful Northland of Opportunity, The Page Company, Boston, 1919
Chevigny, Hector, Lost Empire, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1944
Dhevigny, Hector, Russian America, The Viking Press, New York, 1965
Dobie, Charles Caldwell, San Francisco, a Pageant, D. Appleton-Century Company, New York, 1939
Weber, Msgr., Francis J., The Mission in the Valley, Libra Press, Hong Kong, 1975
Welch, Marie, The Mission Bells of California, 1938
William, Edward V., The Bells of Russia, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1985
Readers who wish more information about the history, ringing and purchase of bells can reach the Blagovest Russian Bell Site thru this link.