The Bells of San Buenaventura

by Richard Senate

All of the missions have bells. They were important   for the spiritual community of the settlement. Some were big deep bells that were rang for sad events such as funerals or defeats in battle. Their were  also  smaller bells that were rang for happy events such as weddings and victories. The bell ringer was an important man and put together a number of cycles of ringing that gave information. If someone was spotted coming to the mission from the bell tower the bells were rang.

Was it a party of soldiers? A visiting padre? or an important person such as the governor” each one had a special ring that would give information to all who were working that day.  The bell ringer was an important man and his skills were passed down from father to son (or daughter).

Originally the Bells at Mission San Buenaventura were hung on rawhide thongs. Today they are held by  steel mountings. Today she has seven historic bells and five were cast with names of saints as well as dates. They are:  1) San Pedro Alcantara , cast in 1781, 2) Ave Maria y Joseph, 3) San Francisco, cast in 1781, 4) Maria Purysyma Maria D. Sapopan, cast 1825, and Pius XII Pont. Max, cast in 1956.  Tradition says that two of the bells were originally from the Mission Santa Barbara, borrowed when the bells intended for San Buenaventura were lost at sea. The bells were never returned and the story is told that each year the padre at Santa Barbara sends a letter, asking for their return, to which the padre of Mission San Buenaventura thanks them for the loan and informs them they will keep them another year!

Twice each day a bell is rang at the Mission–this clear sound isn’t from one of the older bells, it is a bell from an old railroad steam engine, donated in 1951 for this purpose.  On some special days, members of the parish make the long clime up to the bell tower and, with short ropes, ring all of the bells, this happened in 1976 when the Church received a special dedication as a basilica.  It is a glorious sound. Once the upper elements held three wooden bells, their exact purpose is unknown, but many speculate they were simply place holders for bells that never arrived. One didn’t survive, but fragments  of the other two can be viewed in the Mission Museum.  They were carved from ebony wood, but who fashioned them is unknown. It is known that the Chumash People were excellent carvers and it is highly possible they were created locally, even if the wood had to be imported. President Theodore Roosevelt visited the Mission in the early 20th Century and learning of the mysterious wooden bells wanted them sent to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC. They were taken down from the tower but, in a change of heart, Ventura refused to part with them.

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