Bells and bell towers in the Church

Por Daniel Estévez González

Foto: Antoine Cedeño

On the occasion of the Jubilee for the 500th anniversary of the founding of the town of San Cristobal de Havana and thanks to the great efforts of the city’s historian, Dr. Eusebio Leal Spengler, and the ecclesiastical authorities were repaired the bell tower of the Havana cathedral, which received a capital maintenance. Its supports were replaced by others, this time made of Jiquí wood. The eight wonderful bells were lowered and restored by a team of specialists who applied the required particular treatment to each.
The S.M.I. Cathedral of Havana, unlike other churches, chapels and temples that usually have a single bell, has in its credit eight of these great works cast in bronze. The stories and origins of each are very different.
The oldest of all is Our Lady of Charity and Remedy, it was melted on August 22, 1343, as inscribed on her body, and weighs two tons.1 From the wooden ratchet and guano of the humble hermitage built by the Jesuit parents on the plate of the swamp, to the sturdy bell tower of today’s Cathedral , has endured attacks by pirates and privateers alongside several weather avatars.
It is supposed to have taken its name for being built in Our Lady of Charity of Remedies, Spain. According to Ciro Bianchi,2 it is thought that he arrived in the port of Santiago de Cuba “on a date yet to be specified”. Later, he moved to Havana in 1519 and set out on the temple that would become a Major Parish, erected in the space that later occupied the Palace of the Captains General. By 1538 the ratchet holding it was set on fire during a pirate attack and the bell fell. The same was the case in 1741, because of the explosion of the invincible vessel in the port of Havana. In 1762 the English claimed the bell from the then Bishop Pedro Agustín Morell de Santa Cruz, as part of the payment of his ransom, to which the prelaught replied: “My life is worth very little, but if it had any value it is good for you to know that that bell is worth a thousand lives like mine.”3
Another bell named St. Kitts dates back to 1644 and weighs a ton. San Miguel, for his part, bears the sign of the smelter: “D.V.M. Eleverenter. P.S.A. L.M 72”, weighs 165 at signers and melted in 1690, according to its inscription. The Divine Heart of Jesus and the Most Holy Mother of Light of 1756 has two tons. Saint Peter, from 1762, is the heaviest with four tons. From 1778 it was San José with only 700 kg. Madiate, melted in 1844, weighs a ton. And to complete the eight o’clock, the famous bell of the Ingenu Maynicú, ceded to the Cathedral as a historical relic by the owner of that sugar factory, Don Pedro lznaga. It is said to be one of the oldest bells to arrive in Cuba. But how did the bells get to the Christian churches?

The bells in the church
It is important to say that the bells are much older than the Christian church. Like so many things, his invention arose in China. By the time of the Roman Empire, the bells had already expanded through Asia and Europe. The Catholic Church, however, took a few centuries to adopt them.
The popularizer of these great pieces, according to tradition, was a Roman politician born in Bordeaux in the middle of the 4th century. Pontius Meropius Anicios Paulinus was a poet, senator, consul, priest and governor of Campania, southern Italy. Paulinus was a very wise and respected man.

Las campanas son mucho más antiguas que la iglesia cristiana
In theizage process (Photo: Antoine Cedeño)

When in the year 383 of our era, the chief of Paulinus and emperor of Rome, Flavius Gracianus Augustus was killed in Lyon, he decided to return to his hometown. There he met Tharasia, a noble Christian from Barcelona, who sought his conversion, baptism and years later his appointment as a priest.
Living Paulinus in Nola (410 A.D.C), Campania, built a new church dedicated to Saint Felix, a local martyr. The temple was on the outskirts, so the population did not hear their cries when they called to prayer. Back then what was used was a metal plate, the semantron, which was hit with a stick. To solve this dilemma, the future saint pulled out a small bell from some unknown place and began using it to call Mass and get the attention of parishioners. Soon after he added a larger one, and his followers soon learned to be guided by it.
The use of the bells spread rapidly. By the 5th century they were popular in the numerous monasteries that opened throughout Europe. The casting techniques improved, and from the small bells used by Paulinus, it was passed to the large bell towers and bell towers; the latter became one of the most important architectural elements of the churches.

Different bell rings
The tradition of ringing bells is an almost extinct reality in many villages in our country. In some of them he had special peculiarities depending on the priest, the bell ringer and the local custom. But why do they ring the bells?
There are multiple bell rings, let’s remember the most common ones.
Tap to finish: it is a sound that scares and alerts, because the bells are played at the same time and very quickly; it means alert to some danger and that’s how people were warned to come to their aid and help with a fire or problem.

In theizage process (Photo: Antoine Cedeño)

Party touch: it is cheerful, as the bells ring “in flight”, they let themselves be flipped and fly to show that we are facing a big day; it used to be done when the Virgin or the saint arrived in a procession or on a date marked as Resurrection Sunday.
Touch of the deceased: it is the least loved and the one that no one in the village wanted to hear, a slow and overwhelming touch, so perhaps he is the most recognized. “There’s dead” used to be said as little as to listen to him. This warns the population of the death of a neighbor; in a particular way it was customary to end with two separate touches if the death was of a man, and with only one if it were a woman.
Touch of glory: just like the party is joyful; indicates that something special happens, the arrival of the bishop, a new Pope or some event of relevance.
The ringing of bells is not summed up in these four, it is a rich and universal language. There is a touch for the Angelus, others for maitines, lauses, intermediate time, eves, complete, for the prayer of the rosary, for daily mass, for Sunday Mass, to orient in the night, in the fog or in snowfall, that of procession, to mention a few.
Unfortunately, this tradition and ancestral culture of the church seems destined to be lost. These sounds are now an amalgam of memory and tradition that our grandparents, in their younger years, knew by heart. Today, if you listen, they are an enigma that we hardly interpret and that the next generations, I dare say, they will not remember.
On the other hand, bells also have a spiritual relevance that is not well known. It is customary that when a new bell is presented in a church, it is “baptized” or “consecrated” by the bishop or parish priest. In the past ceremonies mimicked that of baptism and today they continue to require the use of holy water. The bells are also named after a particular patron saint, the person who founded it or dedicated the most holy Virgin Mary.
The Roman Ritual contains a very solemn blessing of church bells and speaks of the spiritual symbolism and sacramental power that these bells possess.

Momentos del izaje
Moments of theizaje (Photo: Antoine Cedeño)

“And just as thunder once in the air drove away a horde of enemies, when Samuel sacrificed a lamb nursing as a burnt offering to the eternal King, so when the chime of this bell resurfaces in the clouds bring a legion of angels to watch over the assembly of your Church, the first fruits of the faithful, and aspire to your eternal protection in his body and spirit.”4

Let us then thank and enjoy the wonderful bell tower that our Havana Cathedral gives us today. Let’s respect it and remember by ringing its bells. Let us pray and be wary of the blessings this Jubilee year will give us. And together with our patron Saint Kitts, let us walk together in faith. Ω

1 All bells have the name and date of casting inscribed on their bodies. As for the weight, only that of San Miguel (1690) has it (165 a), the others do not, the data we give is calculated approximately from the crane that now raised the bells.
2 Ciro Bianchi is available on the subject: “Al paso”, Juventud Rebelde, 29 September 2018. On the Internet:, accessed November 20, 2018.
3 Ibid.
4 See Roman Ritual. On the Internet:, accessed November 20, 2018.

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