Schoolchildren on field trips and tourists visiting the San Fernando Mission will once again be able to ring a Russian bell on the mission portico, thanks to a donation by the Orthodox Church in America.
Archbishop Benjamin, the San Francisco-based head of the Orthodox Diocese of the West, and Father Andrew Harrison, rector of St. Luke Orthodox Church in Palos Hills, Ill., traveled to the San Fernando Mission April 11 to deliver a Russian-made replica of a bell cast in 1796 in Kodiak, Alaska, for use by Russian Orthodox missionaries.
Records show that, for a while in the early 1800s, the original 1796-dated Russian bell hung at the San Fernando Mission, before it eventually ended up in a private collection at Rancho Camulos in Piru.
Another bell — which Orthodox clergy believe was possibly part of a set of bells given by Russians at Fort Ross to the San Francisco de Solano Mission at its dedication — also mysteriously migrated to the San Fernando Mission. That mystery Russian bell hung for years at San Fernando Mission until Archbishop José Gomez agreed to a request by Orthodox officials to allow its repatriation back to the Native Orthodox of Alaska.
The bell now hangs in an outdoor bell garden at Holy Resurrection Cathedral in Kodiak, Alaska, where it was officially received last Oct. 19 by Archbishop Benjamin, Father Innocent Dresdow, the dean of the Cathedral, and numerous Native Alaska Orthodox clergy.
One of the theories as to how the Russian bells came to the San Fernando Mission is that the bells were among items of trade carried by the Grand Chamberlain to the Czar of Russia, Nicholas Rezanov, on his ship's journey from Sitka, Alaska, to San Francisco in 1806. A tradition is that Rezanov, who fell in love with the San Francisco Presidio commandant's daughter, Maria Concepción Arguello (Concha), gave the bells to her father, or to a local priest, both of whom were eventually transferred to Southern California.
Tragically, Rezanov, who was Orthodox, died on his two-year journey to the Russian Court to obtain permission from the czar and the pope to marry Concha, a Catholic. She learned of his death six years later, never married and at age 60, after years of good works helping the poor and the orphaned, joined the Dominican Sisters.
"There are some questions about the two bells — it's still a mystery. We don't know for sure how they really got here [to the San Fernando Mission]," said Father Harrison, who orchestrated the gift of the 14-inch-tall Russian church bronze replacement bell for the San Fernando Mission.
"We're grateful for the return of the historic bell now in Kodiak at the Holy Resurrection Cathedral, which is the oldest Orthodox parish in North America," noted Archbishop Benjamin. "As the Russians say, each bell has its own unique voice, and I hope that its voice will contribute to the beauty of your own liturgy here. And it's a wonderful sign of friendship between the native peoples of Alaska and the lower 48 states [states]."
"And," added Father Alexei Smith, archdiocesan director of ecumenical and interreligious affairs, "[a sign of friendship] of the Orthodox Church in America and the Roman Catholic Church."
According to Kevin Feeney, archdiocesan archivist at the San Fernando Mission, plans are to hang the replacement bell where its predecessor used to be so that fourth graders can ring it when they take tours for their mission project. "The tour guides would ring the bell and talk about the lost love [of Rezanov and Concha]. So we hope to hang it back in the same place and ring it" as before, said Feeney.