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When St. Peter's bell was cast in 1910, it was inscribed "through the generosity of DSB Land Company." (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

Bell will toll again at St. Peter the Apostle Church in Park Rapids

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Cleo Williams was just a little shaver when he rang the brass bell at St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church, calling the masses to Mass.

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"We were too little to reach the rope," he recalled Wednesday.

At that time the church was behind its present location, facing Pleasant Avenue south of downtown Park Rapids.

For Williams and son Shawn, a yearlong-plus project to refurbish the 1,800-pound brass bell and its tower will come to a musical finale Easter Sunday.

The 102-year-old bell, after a two-year silence, will once again signal the beginning of worship.

"It's been quite the project," Cleo Williams said. "Once in a lifetime."

The bell was placed in the "new church" bell tower, said Fr. Thomas Friedl. New, meaning the church's second home. Its first location was kitty- corner to its present location, which is now home number three.

It was an American forged bell, circa 1910, sturdy, meant to last a lifetime.

When the new church was built in 1973, the bell was transferred to its new tower. It was the first time it'd been silent.

"A couple years ago that the wood (tower) was showing signs of rot and stress so we quit ringing the bell," Friedl said.

The G-forces created by the massive bell swinging threatened to topple the tower, he said.

When the tower came down, "there was much more wood rot than we ever imagined," said Friedl, shaking his head at the recollection. "It's a miracle it stayed up, that we didn't crack one of the beams."

Parishioners and church officials began immediate talk of duplicating the tower. Funds were raised.

Williams and son began the project.

"We actually took four feet off the top," Cleo Williams said. The new tower is 32 feet high.

Williams ordered Douglas fir, laminated for weather resistance, for the bell tower frame.

The tower started taking shape.

Meanwhile, because the bell was so encrusted in pigeon guano, no one was quite sure what it was made of. Cleo Williams started steaming it clean, occasionally using oven cleaner.

"I didn't want to use anything abrasive on it," he said. He consulted a friend, who told him he believed the bell was solid brass.

It was.

When he'd finished polishing the brass, the bell was displayed in St. Peter's lobby, all one ton of it.

Cleo Williams said it was so valuable, he didn't want to leave it in his workshop, not that anyone could have mounted a quick getaway with it.

A brief history

The bell's story is intertwined with the history of Catholic colonization in the region.

A land baron named Daniel Sidney Bartholomew Johnston, owner of D.S.B. Johnston Land Company, got involved with the Duluth diocese in the early 1900s to bring Dutch immigrants to the region, and settled on Johnston's land.

Johnston was not Catholic, yet he is credited with bringing 30,000 people to the Dakotas and Minnesota.

He donated land for churches, rectories and settlements. The land underneath St. Peter's was Johnston-financed or donated property, according to history furnished by Friedl.

Johnston was a teacher, newspaper editor and landowner. He dabbled in lots of business ventures. He owned a bank, a lumber company, grain elevators. He was born on the East Coast in 1832 and moved to Minneapolis in 1855 to "seek his fortune."

He found it. Then he started giving it away.

He gave churches of all denominations throughout Minnesota and North Dakota money for settlements, low-interest loans for immigrants to get started in dairy farming, to build homes and colonies, along with the houses of worship.

When St. Peter's bell was cast in 1910, it was inscribed "through the generosity of DSB Land Company."  

Johnston died four years later. The land company, formed in 1885, dissolved in 1943.

For whom it tolls

When the bell is operational, it will once again summon people to worship. It was hoisted into place this week, using a boom donated by R&R Rental.

It will be rung about five minutes before mass each Sunday. It will ring three times a day, at 8 a.m., noon and 6 p.m., Friedl said. "It strikes for the Angelus," Friedl said, "the traditional times of prayer."

The Angelus, he explained, is a devotion in memory of the incarnation, accompanied by the ringing of the bell. Angelus is a Latin reference to the angel Gabriel, who revealed to the Virgin Mary that she would bear the Son of God. Friedl suggests reading Luke 1:26-38.

The bell will also toll after a funeral, when pallbearers are bringing a deceased person from the church.

Friedl said the significance of that ringing comes from Englishman John Donne's series of meditations in the 1600s. They were prayers for the sick and those in pain.

In its original form, Donne's most famous reflection states:

"No man is an Island, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee."

There will be a formal dedication ceremony, where the bell will be blessed, sometime this spring.

Most of the American bell foundries have closed.

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Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers Hubbard County, courts and breaking news.

(218) 732-3364
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