The Cathedral Basilica of St Augustine has embarked on a renovation and restoration program this year, and the first project was getting the Cathedral’s many bells to ring again. There are two sets of bells, one set in the free-standing Flagler bell tower near St George Street, which was added in the 19th century after the 1887 fire, and the four original bells in the campanario or espadaña (a traditional Spanish false-front bell-wall) over the door.
The bells have not rung for years, although the four original bells, which had been damaged in the 1887 fire, had been recast and rehung for the 400th Anniversary in 1965. But for one reason or another, they were not used, possibly because no adequate ringing mechanism was in place. In the 19th century, they were rung by being swung with ropes – or by little boys who would climb up to a platform behind them and strike them with a hammer! Obviously, it’s time for something more modern.
The mechanism that rang the Flagler bells had also ceased to work and they placed too much of a strain on the bell tower if they moved, so an electronic chime replaced them years ago. But now something has happened.
Here we see Tolomato Cemetery Preservation Association Secretary Louise Kennedy, standing in front of the bells as they are placed on a truck to be taken away for cleaning and restoration.
What is the connection with Tolomato? As we know, Tolomato was originally the site of a Franciscan Indian mission, which had a four-story coquina bell tower that remained standing until sometime between 1793 and 1800, when it was slowly taken apart so that the stone could be used in the building of the current Cathedral.
When the Spanish left Florida in 1763 as the British arrived, they took with them to Cuba all of the church furnishings from all of the churches, including the missions such as San Sebastian, and of course the parish church, which was at that time Nuestra Senora de la Soledad on St George Street. In the inventory done upon the arrival of the goods in Cuba, there is a record of three bells, “one large, one medium and one small,” being brought to Havana. Most of these goods were distributed to other parishes in Cuba or to the new one founded by St Augustine residents in Guanabacoa. Only a few things were returned to St Augustine when the Spanish came back in 1784, and the bells were not mentioned on the list that I have seen.
So it seems that three of the current bells were acquired for the building of the new church, the current Cathedral. Construction had actually been planned some 10 years earlier, but the funds needed to be used for rebuilding the town after a disastrous hurricane. However, it is possible that the bells had been ordered at this time, because when they were taken down, one was found to be dated 1787.
But what about the fourth bell? The oldest bell, dated in 1689 and named San Jose, is possibly the one that came from Tolomato. It’s the one at the lower left in the bell tower, and is not the largest. Below is a photo taken by Louise.
Bells were very important to the missions and to the town. Life began every morning with the Angelus at 6:00 am, and the Angelus bells rang again at noon and at 6:00 pm, marking the day. It is certainly possible that this bell was somehow left in the bell tower at Tolomato, of no interest to the British, or perhaps was hidden elsewhere and recovered by the Spanish when they returned. Will we ever know? Well, rest assured that we’re certainly trying to find out!