The ringing of the bells started the day at each California mission ... and the ringing of the bells ended the day. The mission bells set the rhythm of life for all who lived at the missions.
All through the day the mission bells rang, announcing that it was time to go to church, time for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, time to work, or time to rest. The first bell in the morning was the Angelus at sunrise, calling the people to prayer. The last bell at night was the Poor Souls’ Bell, saying good-night to all at 8 o’clock in the evening.
The message of the bells changed from joyful, happy tones for a feast or wedding, to sad, somber tones for a funeral. When danger was near, the bells rang a warning. Visitors were announced by the peal of the bells. At Santa Inés, a lookout was posted in the bell tower to watch for visitors. He rang out a code on the bells to signal whether the visitor was a padre, a Spaniard, or a Native Californian.
It was an honor to be chosen to ring the mission bells. The bell ringer must be skillful and reliable. Each bell had its unique tone, and the combination of tones and rhythms was changed to ring out the many messages. Bells were of many sizes. Some were large and heavy, and could be dangerous if the bell ringer was not quick enough to get out of the way of the swinging bell. Some bells were rung by pulling on a long rope from below. Other bells had to be pushed by hand until they spun completely around on their bell-yoke.
Bells for each mission could be purchased with the $1,000 start-up money that came to the new mission from the Pious Fund of the Catholic Church in Spain. Some bells were gifts to the mission, often from the King of Spain. It was customary for Spain to give two bells (one large, one small) to each new mission. Mission San Francisco Solano’s bell was a gift from a surprising source -- the Russians at Fort Ross.
Most of the mission bells were made in Mexico or Peru. Lima (in Peru) was known as “the city of bells” because there were so many bell foundries there. The largest bells were two or three feet high and weighed a thousand pounds or more. Many of the bells had inscriptions on them that added to the unique character of the bell.
The bell-maker often put his name and the date on the bell, and sometimes the name of the mission for which the bell was made. A bronze bell inscribed “Manuel Vargas Me Fecit, Año 1818, Misíon de la Purísima de la Nueva California” was found at Mission Santa Inés in the 1930s, and returned to Mission La Purísima. The La Purísima bells had been made in Lima, Peru, in 1817 and 1818 by Manuel Vargas.
Mission San Juan Capistrano’s bells are rung by pulling on ropes tied to the clapper of each bell, instead of swinging the entire bell. Two of the bells are dated 1796, and two are dated 1804. The largest bell has on it the names of the padres serving at the mission at that time. The San Juan Capistrano bells are rung each March 19 to welcome back the swallows. Legends tell of these bells ringing all by themselves at times of tragic events.
Many mission bells had names; some were named for saints. The bell named St. Gabriel, at Mission San Gabriel, is dated 1800. The largest San Gabriel bell, weighing at least 2,000 pounds, could be heard eight miles away.
A famous bell at Mission San Diego is the Mater Doloroso, which was first cast in Mexico in 1796 and recast in San Diego in 1894. It is three feet across, over three feet high, and weighs over a thousand pounds. As with many other mission bells, the Mater Doloroso has on it the design of a cross made of stars, and a crown.
Mission San Miguel has one of the largest bells. This 2,000-pound bell was cast in 1888 using the metal from bells that had been sent to San Miguel from other missions.
Two of Mission Santa Clara’s three bells were gifts from the King of Spain in 1799. For 126 years they rang every evening at 8:30 PM. In 1926 a big fire destroyed the mission church, by then part of the University of Santa Clara. One bell was melted in the fire, and a second was cracked by the heat. But one of the King’s bells was rescued from the flames. Even on the night of the fire, it was hung from a temporary bar and rang at 8:30 PM, as it has continued to do ever since.
There were certain days during Holy Week when the large bronze bells were not to sound. It may be that the unusual bells at Mission San Buenaventura were made for those days. These two bells are carved from two-foot blocks of redwood, the only wooden bells known at the California missions.
Small bells attached to a wheel were used in some mission churches. These, too, may have been for the days when the large bells were not to be rung. Several mission museums have preserved the unique bell wheels.
At some missions such as Santa Bárbara, San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, and San Buenaventura, the bells hung in bell towers. Other missions built companarios, or bell walls, for their bells. These walls were adjacent to the churches, and had openings in them for the bells. Companarios can be seen at Missions San Diego, San Gabriel, Santa Inés, and other missions. Some missions had places for the bells on the front of the church. At a few of the missions (San Rafael, San Francisco Solano, Soledad) simple wooden frames, set near the entrance to the churches, supported the bells.
A story is told of the day that Father Serra and his companions chose the spot for Mission San Antonio de Padua. Even before unpacking the mules to make camp for the first night, Father Serra hung a mission bell from a tree limb and rang the bell, calling out for people to come to the church. When his friends reminded him that there was not yet any church and no one to hear the bell, Serra replied, “Let me give vent to my heart, which desires that this bell might be heard all over the world.”
The bells of the California missions have been heard for over 200 years. The bells have become a symbol for the history of California. They mark the path of El Camino Real, the old mission road, providing a reminder of this period in the past.