Retuning, repairs, roof work take toll
For the first time in a century and a half, the bells of St. Martin de Tours Catholic Church are not chiming on the quarter-hour or ringing people to Mass in St. Martinville.
The bell tower is empty.
The oldest bell is cracked; one of the newest needs retuning and the tower is being re-roofed, repaired and reinforced as part of renovations planned before the church’s 250th anniversary in 2015.
The work should take about six weeks, said Phil Borel, of Loreauville, one of a few certified bell technicians in the country.
The church, founded in 1765, has no plans to use amplified recordings while that goes on.
“We’re going to be silent until we get the bells back,” the Rev. Rusty P. Richard said.
Seven bells dating from 1850, 1904 and 1977 had just been removed from their stands, rolled on pipes to a small platform cantilevered onto the bell tower, and lowered by crane to a flatbed truck.
“It took us three days to get them dislodged from their mounts and get them on the floor where they could be carted out. And make a little landing … to launch them from,” Borel said.
St. Martin’s, one of Louisiana’s oldest churches, is known as the Mother Church of Acadiana and as the place where many believe the original heroine of Longfellow’s “Evangeline” is buried, though no historical record has ever been found to back the claim.
The monument is a statue of Delores Del Rio as Evangeline, made after her 1929 movie was filmed in St. Martinville.
The church’s first building was erected a decade after the Acadians were expelled from Canada but 20 years before the largest Acadian immigration to south Louisiana. The current Gothic Revival structure was built around 1836, according to the Diocese of Lafayette’s website.
Inside, the colonial-style box pews will be taken apart, reinforced and reassembled, then stained to match the altar rail. The church’s exterior will be washed and repainted.
The bell tower’s metal roof, from the late 1800s, has reached the end of its useful life and must be replaced, Richard said.
The floor that supports the bells must be reinforced, something Borel realized when he noticed the crack in the oldest bell about six years ago.
All seven bells are engraved with the year they were made, the pastor’s and donor’s names, and the names and locations of their foundries.
The W.C. Coffin Foundry, known as Buckeye Bell, made the oldest bell; the McShane Bell Foundry of Baltimore, Md., made two that were christened and installed at the church in 1904 and four bought in 1977.
Borel said the 20th century bells also are engraved with the names given to the bells: Marie Angelus, Marie Augustine, Marie Stephania, Marie Editha, Marie Lena and Marie Aline.
The bell from 1850, which church records identify as Marie Agathe, is adorned with bas-relief angels. Angels surround the top, and a large angel is in the middle.
Before any repairs, it will be X-rayed to see whether the crack is surface or structural. It hasn’t been rung since Borel noticed the crack, apparently caused when another bell hit it.
“We had too many (bells) on too shifty a foundation,” Borel said.
The floor was poorly made when bells were added in 1977, and would shift when the bells swung out, sometimes letting them hit each other, he said.
There was another problem: although each bell is supposed to ring a different note, St. Martin’s seven bells had only four notes among them. Some foundries are less precise than others, Borel said, and the bells were ordered by diameter. One of the two bought in 1904 has the same note as Marie Agathe, and two of those bought in 1977 ring the same tone even though one is 26 inches in diameter and the other 25 inches.
The 25-inch bell is being flown to Holland for retuning.
Marie Agathe, with its lovely detail work, won’t be going back into the bell tower.
“This bell was the finest one of the bunch. But people were like that years ago; they put a lot of pride into their work,” Borel said. It will be placed on the church grounds, in a protective structure with an electric circuit to ring it.
“We’ll put it where it can be seen and appreciated,” Borel said.