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Capistrano Bells Back in Place

After years of debate about how to restore them, mission chimes are returned to the spot where a tower once stood.

June 23, 2004|Susan Anasagasti | Times Staff Writer

It took years to arrange, but moving day finally arrived Tuesday for the historic bells at Mission San Juan Capistrano.

A small crowd gathered early to watch as a pair of 200-year-old bells were placed where a tower once stood before it was flattened by the great earthquake of 1812.

"Now this is what you call history," said Father Joseph Scerbo, a Franciscan friar who, for a moment, got behind the wheel of the crane to lift the bells. "And we are here to watch it."

The 800-pound bronze bells had spent six weeks in Los Angeles to be repaired, but that was just the final phase in a lengthy dispute over where to put them and how to fix them.

The problems began after the 1812 earthquake when the Great Stone Church collapsed. Part of Mission San Juan Capistrano, it was the only one of California's mission churches made of stone and remains the largest stone structure west of the Mississippi. Shortly after, the bells were relocated to the campanario -- the mission's bell wall.

Over the years, docents, Native Americans and historians often debated over what to do with the bells.

Then, a few years ago, the movement to repair the bells picked up steam when the Netherlands-based Verdin Co. was contracted to remove the original bells and replace them with replicas.

That's when the arguments began, said David Belardes, chief and chairman of the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians who first inhabited the region.

"I agree that the bells should be restored but the debate is how," Belardes said.

"I'm about education too. But it's a double-edged sword because one vein says that the bells should have been left alone."

But some thought the bells should be melted down and recast. Others were aghast at such thinking. While they believed that the bells should be polished and buffed, they wanted them left intact.

So many people were opposed to recasting the bells that the restoration group decided against it, project manager John Loomis said.

"It was a good decision to get them back and not melt them," he said.

Everyone did agree on one thing: The bells should rest where the bell tower stood before the earthquake.

"It was pretty unanimous that the bells should come back to the bell tower," Loomis said.

But before they could be moved, the bells had to be sent to Los Angeles to be tested for bronze disease, a condition that results in decay. As it turns out, Loomis said, the bells were healthy.

"They had every other problem in the planet," he said. "It was nice that they didn't have that one, too."

While in Los Angeles, Loomis said, the bells were cleaned, repaired, waxed and made perfectly round.

They were back in Orange County on Tuesday attracting onlookers as they swayed laboriously from a crane at the intersection of El Camino Real and Ortega Highway.

Dolores Schiffert, an archeologist who has been working at the mission for 25 years, said Tuesday marked a milestone in a project that took careful planning to get everyone to agree.

"We have been waiting a long time to get the bells to where they need to be," Schiffert said. "It's been 15 years since the restoration project began. It's nice to see the bells are where they belong."

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