Bells have been part of society for the past 2,500 years. Found in ancient China as early as 500 B.C., they appeared in France by 550 A.D., and a hundred years later in England. In Colonial America they were used to summon worshipers to religious services as well as to warn of approaching danger.
Bells have also been used to announce a curfew, to mourn the dead, and to celebrate a joyous event such as a wedding or holiday or military victory. They come in all sizes and shapes, and are made of a variety of materials. Generally the ones we think of are vessel shaped, made of metal, and are sounded by striking the rim or edge manually or electronically. Some bells tended to swing with a clapper making the tone by striking the metal wall. More recently large groups of bells tend to be stationery and the clapper, not the bell motion, creates the sound. In general the modern bell, regardless of size, tends to be four parts copper and one part tin, and is designed in a tulip shape.
Tone is determined by a bell's size. Generally, it is felt that the larger the bell, the more beautiful the sound. For this reason a small bell may be rejected as having an unpleasant sound. The joyful concept of bells carries over into all phases of our culture. The holiday card portrays the ringing bell and holly leaves, the wedding cake shows a bridal couple and wedding bells. In the old Jimmy Stewart film 'It's a Wonderful Life, ' Stewart is shown holding his little daughter, ZuZu, who points to the bells on the Christmas tree saying 'Teacher says every time a bell rings some angel gets his wings.'
While bells have played an important part in Newark's history, their role has been mainly assigned to fire protection and calling the faithful to worship. As early as 1853 the city's first fire bell was installed in the old Newark City Market building which was located in Broad Street over the Morris Canal. In the 1860s the fire bell was relocated to the frame fire tower at Market near Arlington streets, and then to an iron structure at Halsey Street near the Morris Canal. By 1870, the Gamewell Fire alarm telegraph system replaced the outside warning bells. Before the modern electronic system, 'a watchman was stationed in the observatory to walk around inside the protective railings to watch for danger below and to sound the alarm when necessary.'
While bells were important in promoting the safety of the city, they were valuable to the spiritual community. The old Newark Daily Advertiser described the church's use of bells in November 1863 in the following narrative: 'Let the reader take some central position in the city on a still Sabbath morning about eight o'clock and listen, the stillness is broken first perhaps by the deep and mellow tones of Trinity's bell—soon the loud musical tones of that of Grace Church from the South, and the less loud but higher ones from the steeples of the House of Prayer towards the North, and heard in conjunction. Presently he will hear from out the First Church belfry the unpretending sounds of the old bell, rather shaky from age but still sharp and stirring, and with them, but not commingling, the full chimes of St. John’s—Ere long the pleasing notes from the Park Street Church will attract his attention, and then in the distance, he will hear the three bells of St. Mary's on High Street—‘San Benedictus Maria,’ ‘San Josephus Maria,’ and one not yet christened—followed perhaps by the compound of sounds proceeding from the four bells of St. Patrick's, each by itself—save the jingling ‘St. Bridget’ —of agreeable tone, but as usually rung together, as discordant as if St. Patrick, St. Mary, and St. James were Heaven forfend! At loggerheads and soon a multitudinous number of other bells smaller it may be but many equally if not more melodious will join in the tintinnabulation.'
This listing shows that both Catholics and Protestants incorporated bells into their houses of worship, but for sheer mass, size and variety, it was the Catholic Church which had the greatest number and varieties of bells. Not only were Protestants less apt to have multiple bells, the steeples of their churches were not designed to hold more than one large bell. While there were larger collections of bells and chimes in the nation, and even the state, such as the Rockefeller's Baptist Cathedral on Riverside Drive in Manhattan, and St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Morristown, it was Newark that could lay claim to being called New Jersey's city of chimes and bells for more than a century. The bells at St. Patrick's, hung on the 5th of December in 1862, were blessed by Archbishop Bayley, then Bishop of Newark. Their inscription in Latin read 'To St. Patrick, Patron, to the Most Blessed Mary, Mother of God, to St. James Apostle, to St. Bridget, Virgin, 1862.' In 1874, five new bells were ordered from the Meneeley Co. of West Troy, N.Y., where many of Newark's finest bells were cast. This group honored St. John the Baptist; Sts. Peter and Paul, the Apostles; St. Gabriel, Archangel; St. Aloysius, Confessor; and St. Rose of Lima, Virgin.'
Ten bells were cast by the McShane Bell Foundry of Baltimore for St. Michael's as were the 10 bells at St. James Church. The mixture of bells was different at St. John's on Mulberry Street. They are the first in Newark, and were installed in 1858. Edward Wien, the sacristan was in charge of bell ringing. St. Aloysius Church on Bowery Street had nine bells, as well as the 'city's steepest belfry.' St. Mary's Abbey on High Street had four bells which were the responsibility of Brother Anthony, and they were 'hung in the old German order.' Recently, according to Father Augustine Curley of Newark Abbey, one of the original bells was dedicated to an early and somewhat obscure German saint, St. Liborius. However, the oldest bell comes from the original St. Mary's Church which was burned and sacked in an anti-church riot by Newark's Know Nothing Party in 1854.
The Italian Church of St. Philip Neri in the Ironbound was watched over by Fr. Brown where Brother Augustus 'rings the angelus by pulling one stroke on the heavy bells which itself rings the other stroke in recoil Repeating this twice gives the three peals of these, that is the usual call of the angelus.' The Sunday Call felt that Newark was greatly indebted to the Roman Catholic Church for all these wonderful bells. In the Ironbound, the tallest steeple belongs to St. Casimir's Polish Roman Catholic Church whose bells were installed in 1920. According to John Dwiboroczyn, parishioner and lifelong area resident, the bells were named for the church's patron saint, St. Casimir; for St. Stanislaus, Poland's patron saint; for Our Lady of Cyestochawa, the Black Madonna; and for St. Joseph. They have been rung daily at noon and at 6 p.m. for the past 78 years.
Most of the great old Protestant churches along Broad Street had steeples, and many of them one exceptionally fine bells or, later, some sort of electronic chimes. The large bell at Grace Episcopal has 'a deep rich tone, weighs 2,500 pounds, and rings out in the musical note of ‘E.’' It still sounds today at the beginning of Sunday morning mass and on other important church occasions and national holidays. The ancient bell at Old First Church has been known to Newarkers for 200 years as well as that at Trinity/St. Philip's Cathedral in the northern end of Military Park. At the north end of Broad Street, across from the Broad Street railroad station, the Episcopal House of Prayer installed a new bell on Easter Day 1870 weighing 2,000 pounds, bought with money raised by Sunday school children. In May 1875 a newer bell replaced the earlier one which cracked only after a few years of use.
Any large city would be pleased to boast of such a wonderful collection of bells and chimes. Indeed, few could surpass Newark in that claim. But there is more. Installed in the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart, the nation's fifth largest church, is a magnificent set of 14 bronze bells cast by Diciano Colbachini e Figli (Colbachini and Sons) of Padua, Italy, a firm that has been marking bells since 1745. Sacred Heart's bells are stationary and struck by a hammer played from an electronically operated keyboard. Originally installed in 1953, they eventually became inoperable. A decade ago, after David Fedor, became organist and director of music at the cathedral, the system was replaced and the bells became part of the cathedral's and community's life again, sounding the angelus at noon, and announcing each Mass. Each bell has its unique sound and its own name. What an experience it is to walk up the front sidewalk to the cathedral as the great bells are beginning to ring. Why, it's almost like the sky overhead has opened up, and heaven is singing to the passerby.