Time and the elements have taken a toll on one the most perceptible aspects of Biddeford’s skyline, yet an elaborate project is about to restore the iconic bells of St. Joseph Catholic Church to their former majesty and splendor.
Three bronze bells, measuring 46, 37, and 31 inches in diameter and weighing 1,800, 1,000, and 600 pounds have welcomed worshipers to St. Joseph Church since they were cast at the McShane Bell Foundry in Baltimore, Maryland and installed in the church’s 235-foot high belfry and steeple in 1900.
St. Joseph was established as a church on May 13, 1870 by a decree from Bishop Bacon, Bishop of Portland and was founded to meet the spiritual needs of French Canadians who were moving from Quebec to work in the Biddeford mills at the end of the 19th century. The church was constructed in 1873 using neo-Gothic architecture and for years stood as the tallest building in the state of Maine.
The bells were a regular feature of St. Joseph, which is part of Good Shepherd Parish, for decades, summoning parishioners to Mass, ringing out the Catholic Angelus devotional at noon, and signifying funerals, weddings and other important occasions. But in recent years, two of the bells stopped working as clapper parts and spring frames cracked from ongoing exposure to cold and moisture through louvres in the church steeple.
“The bells themselves are in pretty good shape,” said Mike Gornick, Good Shepherd Parish custodian. “We’re working with The Verdin Company of Cincinnati, Ohio, to restore and then operate the bells through a digital system with a whole new range of options.”
He said people living in the community will appreciate the bells ringing out once more when the project wraps up.
“It’s just something people grew up with and love to hear,” Gornick said.
David Gadbois, Good Shepherd Parish business coordinator, said that the bell restoration is part of an effort to reinvigorate the parish and give parishioners a reason to take pride in the church.
According to Gadbois, the effort has included numerous initiatives that have included the installation of a monument-style sign identifying the property in front of St. Joseph Church along Elm Street; the reconstruction of the church parking lot; the relocation of St. Joseph Street in order to consolidate the church parking lot; and adding a new “handicap designated” lot adjacent to a completely rebuilt handicap entrance ramp for parishioners.
He said the church has also added new lighting, created new sidewalks, fencing, landscaping, finished all parking space striping and commissioned Buxton woodworker/master craftstman Robert Cariddi to design and hang beautiful new wooden front doors for St. Joseph Church.
“Much of this was made possible from a generous bequest received from the estate of Marguerite Boivin,” Gadbois said.
Don Hartmann of The Verdin Company said the bell project will take between four and six months and will update bell A-stands, head pieces, clappers, clapper springs, clapper pins, head bolts, swinging bell ringers, the outside bell ringer, and the wooden support timbers for the bells.
Verdin will also install a Digital Bell Controller for programming the operation of the bells, he said.
Hartmann said that the bell restoration work is tedious and challenging.
“There are certainly many factors that make the work very difficult. To begin with, it is quite the journey to get to the bells from the street, including stairs and ladders, and having to go through the pipe organ room.” Hartmann said. “Much of the old equipment is used as templates for the new. Therefore, the techs make two trips to the church. One trip allows them to take measurements and remove the old equipment out of the tower.”
That means disconnecting the bells from the yokes and to drop the bell off the yoke, the technician has to build a wooden structure for the bell to rest on, he said.
“With the bells being so heavy, great care must be taken to guarantee the safety of not only the technician, but also the safety of the bells and the structure of the church. Once the old equipment is taken apart, it has to be taken down the ladders and stairs by hand,” Hartmann said. “Ropes and buckets can be used to lower the parts so the technicians can make fewer trips. Once the new components are custom made and/or assembled in our factory as there are very few off-the-shelf parts, the process is reversed and a second trip is made to the church to do the installation.”
Besides tools, Hartmann said the company estimates that almost 2,000 pounds of bell hardware and bell ringing equipment must be carried up into the church steeple, which is typically hot in the summer and cold in the winter and dirty to work in.
Hartmann said that once the project is complete, with normal use and regular maintenance, the restored bells and equipment is expected to last another 100 years or more.
“We’re delighted to see how all of this work has come together,” Gadbois said. “This is an investment for future generations of this church and this parish.”