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Mission Possible : Long-Silent Bells Are Rehung at Restored San Gabriel Church

June 19, 1996|ERIC SLATER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In September, six parishioners will pull on six ropes and officially ring the six heavy bells of the San Gabriel Mission for the first time in nearly a decade. On Tuesday, though, workers couldn't resist a quiet little test.

"We got them up and tried them out," admitted Helen Nelson, the mission's restoration director. "I rang all six of them. I couldn't help it."

Lowered by crane from the damaged tower after the 1987 Whittier earthquake--and then kept stored and silent even longer because of the 1994 Northridge quake--the bells were rehung in front of about 200 people during a morning ceremony at the mission.

But the bells--the lightest of which weighs about 1,500 pounds, the youngest being 160 years old--remained silent until late in the day, when workers installed the clappers and gave them a little ring.

"The fourth bell has probably the most gorgeous tone," Nelson said. "It's like a call. It's a note you don't forget."

Rehanging the bells was among the last tasks to be completed before the mission celebrates its 225th anniversary--and $3 million in quake repairs and seismic retrofitting--in September.

The tower supporting an asymmetrical grouping of bells, the mission museum and the church were all damaged in the Whittier quake. The church was restored and reopened in 1993 and withstood the Northridge temblor with only superficial damage.

Founded in 1771, San Gabriel was the fourth of 21 missions built by Franciscan Padre Junipero Serra, who was beatified by the Catholic Church in 1988.

Three bells were originally hung in the bell tower, scholars believe, with three more added over the next several years--at least one obtained from traders in exchange for animal hides and tallow.

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