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Russian Mystery Bell of the San Fernando Mission
By Father Andrew Harrison
Source: St Luke Web Site - Date: Revised May 21st, 2013

As you walk through the serenely beautiful gardens of the former San Fernando Rey de España Mission now a parish 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 under a portio 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 bell, weighing only about 150 pounds, is not Spanish. By its shape, design, decoration and sound, it is definitely a Russian bell. How this and another bell came into the possession of the San Fernando mission is a mystery. A bell was unearthed in an orange grove by Mrs. Alice Harriman in 1920. According to Mrs. Harriman, the bell contained an inscription, written in Old Russian which 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 Alexander Baranov.

Monsignor Weber the archivist at the San Fernando Mission says that the highly prized bell was in the possession of the deteriorating Mission in 1860. It was then removed and buried at the Del Valle 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.

There are problems with this historical account. The bell at the San Fernando mission is a Russian Bell but it does not have an inscription. This 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. A crack runs its entire length from top to bottom. It has been repaired with a crude welding job.

Repaired Bell.

There is another bell at the Rancho Camulos in Peru California. This bell is larger and has the inscription cited in old Russian. It has a similar crown and one line of frieze bands. Besides the Russian inscription which was cast into the bell when it was made there is an engraving of a cross and the words in Latin . Sn De Ferno.

Cracked Bell.

The bell itself in very poor condition. An unrepaired crack runs vertically through the full length and then turns laterally around the top. The bell is in danger of splitting apart. By the looks of it attempts were made to repair it with bailing wire. Eight holes were drilled into it in order to string the bailing wire. This bell originally hung at the San Fernando Mission and was taken to the Camulos Ranchero by Antonio del Valle somewhere between 1839 and 1842 when he was administrator of the mission when it was secularized. After secularization of the mission system , the chapel at the Rancho Camulos was the only operating church between San Fernando and San Buenaventura. It became known as the lost mission. A third, smaller bell was removed by a del Valle’s daughter and taken to her private chapel. This bell has been lost.

Stand with Bells.

In 1849 the last official Mission inventory was taken. The Russian bells were not listed possibly because they were removed by Antonio. At that time the San Fernando Mission had six bells. We can speculate that the Russian bells 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 the San Francisco Solano Mission. In the book Missions of California the author states that a set of bells was donated by the Russians when it was dedicated in 1823. The San Francisco Solano mission was attacked in 1827 by the local tribes which destroyed the Church and other buildings. It could have been this attack that damaged the bells and caused the cracks.

There is a tradition that the Russian bells had been at the San Fernando Mission since as early as 1815.If this is true, there could be only two possible sources for the bells. On Santa Rosa Island there was a colony of Russian hunters who could have had the bells. 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, the bells had special significance. They were 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 a native Alaskan named Tchounagnak (Peter) who is said to have died in a California prison. According to written reports he was tortured in an attempt to bring about his conversion.

It was at a time when the relationship between the two churches were cordial, that the story of the bells unfold. Spain was protecting her vast colonial empire, worried about the incursions of the Americans. California was an outpost controlled by a chain of 17 missions extending from San Diego in the South to the Napa Valley 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 set of bells. One of which had the inscription and date of the dedication 1796.

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. Father Juvenaly, one of the nine monks was a former mining engineer and had knowledge of foundry procedures, this was one of the reasons he was chosen for this mission.

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. This could be one of the reasons for the cracks. The master founder will always light candles in front of icons and say prayers at the moment the metal begins to flow.

In January 1796, the Church of Resurrection was ready for the dedication. The ringing of the first bells 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 Joaseph 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 Fr. Juvenaly, the former mining engineer who, within a few months after the dedication, was to give his life while preaching the Gospel to the hostile northern tribes of Alaska. The Church of the Resurrection would be destroyed in a tsunami.

Drawing Of The Church.

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 Shelikov 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 Baranov 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 set of bells that were recovered from the church of the Resurrection were 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. We could speculate that a gift of a set of bells 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 Presidio, 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 de Asis 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 during these negotiations that the set bells were presented. One tradition has the bells being given to Concha's father, the Commandant. It is said that he took the bells with him to Santa Barbara when he was transferred and eventually gave the bells to the San Fernando Mission. There is also a possibility that the bells were given to Father Jose Uria and then taken with him when he was transferred to the San Fernando Mission in 1807.The third possibility is that they were given to Luis Arguello who donated them to the San Francisco Solano mission when it was dedicated in 1823.

The tragedy of this great love affair is that Rezanov never returned. While trying to complete his journey in the allotted two years, he 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. He died in 1807. 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 California with the nuns of her order in 1857. Several miracles have been attributed to her.

The story of the love affair was dramatized in a Russian Rock opera entitled, Juno & Avos written by Andrei Voznesensky. It was performed in Moscow in 1983 and become very popular in Russia. The play ends with the song Hallelujah to Love and the ringing of a “San Francisco bell”. In 2000, soil from Rezanov grave was taken and placed on Concha’s grave while soil from Concha’s grave was placed on Razonov’s grave in an attempt to reunite the lovers. This was seen as symbolic of friendship between Russia and the United States after the cold war years.

Hallelujah to Love - "Juno & Avos" w Engl. subs

The mystery bell has hung under the portico at the former San Fernando mission for 40 years. The bell, which has been a mystery bell to the Mission may be one of the set of bells rung when the first Church in Alaska was consecrated. To the Orthodox Church in America and the Diocese Alaska the existence of this bell and the bell at the Rancho Camulos and there significance has been largely unknown. The two recently canonized saints of the Orthodox Church, St. Herman and St. Juvenaly would have heard the sound of these bells when they were rung on that cold day in January 1796. That would make them important relics.

An attempt was made to borrow the San Fernando bell for the millennium of Christianity in Russia in 1988. It came about at the time of the Papal visit to Los Angeles in 1987. Letters were sent to Pope John Paul, through the Papal nuncio and the bishops of the Orthodox Church in America. A plan was made to have the bell returned to Kodiak by Alaska Airline for the commemoration. There was little interest in the project because the authenticity of the bell could not be firmly established.

In 2011 at second attempt was made not only to borrow the San Fernando bell but to have it repatriated. Repatriation has been granted by the Archbishop Gomez of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Los Angles and will be given by the Catholic Indians to Archbishop Benjamin of the Orthodox Church in America diocese of San Francisco Locum tenens of the Diocese of Alaska and with him an Orthodox native tribal representative. This will take place at the Tekakwitha Catholic Indian Conference July 17-21st. The bell will them be taken by Alaska Airlines to Kodiak Alaska and presented to the Alaska Diocese of the Orthodox Church in America and its Orthodox Natives. A copy of this bell will be given to the San Fernando mission as a sign of mutual respect and love.

Replacement Bell.

A letter from Archbishop Benjamin will be sent to Shirley Rubel Lorenz, owner and president of the board of directors of the Camulos Ranchero requesting repatriation of the second bell. In anticipation, a replacement bell with the inscriptions and engravings has already been cast. It is hoped that both bells will be returned together in July of 2013.


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

Galperin Mark, Early History of the Oldest Known Self-Dated Russian Church Bell made in America. Unpublished , 2012

Korsun, Sergei & Black, Lydia Black Herman a Wilderness Saint, Holy Trinity Publications, New York, 2012

Voznesensky, Andrei Music by Rybnikov, Alexei The Juno and Avos 1981

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

Yenne, Bill The Missions of California, Thunder bay Press, San Diego California, 2004

Readers who wish more information about the history, ringing and purchase of bells can reach the Blagovest Russian Bell Site thru this link."
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