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History Of The Repatriation Of The Russian Mystery Bell
By Father Andrew Harrison

Grappling with the description of the martyrdom of St. Peter the Aleut (d. 1815) has been a longstanding dilemma for me. I could not understand how Roman Catholic clergy, Franciscan or Jesuit, participated in the forced conversion of a Native American. When visiting the Fort Ross Russian Museum in Sonoma County, California, I asked the curator what he thought of the incident. He explained that the cruel treatment and martyrdom of St. Peter could be accurate since the Spaniards were known to have treated the Indians severely. Thus, I became interested in the relationship between the Catholic Spanish and the Orthodox Russians in eighteenth and nineteenth century California and Alaska.

In the late 1980s, after several years of living in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, I toured the Mission San Fernando Rey de España Museum in Mission Hills, California. In one of their brochures the archivist, Fr. Francis Weber, described the history of a Russian church bell in their collection. The bell, which hung under the eaves in the mission courtyard, was supposed to have an inscription stating it was cast in Kodiak Alaska in 1796. Intrigued, I carefully examined the bell, but could not find any inscription and thought it might have worn away. I began to research this bell and its history slowly came to light. I read the story of Count Nicholas Rezanov, Grand Chamberlain to the Czar of Russia, and his 1806 visit to San Francisco. He traveled from Alaska aboard the sailing ship Juno. While in San Francisco, Rezanov courted Maria Concepción Argüello daughter of the commandant of the Presidio. I wondered if that the bell may have been given as a gift to the Catholic Friars in Monterey, California. The historical record does mention that Rezanov did give expensive religious gifts to stimulate the possibility of establishing trade with the Alaskan Colony. Yet, there seemed to be a disconnect between the martyrdom of St. Peter the Aleut and the seemingly good relationship between the Spanish and the Russians (i.e. the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church). I wondered if the martyrdom of St. Peter could have either been an apocryphal legend or a tragic isolated incident.

Since the Russian Orthodox Church was planning to celebrate 1,000 years of Christianity in Russia in 1988, the thought came to me to ask if that Russian church bell could be loaned to the Orthodox Church in Alaska for the celebration. It would be very meaningful to have the original bell rung at the Orthodox Holy Resurrection Church in Kodiak, Alaska. St. Herman of Alaska (c. 1750-1836) and St. Juvenaly (1761-1796) may have both heard this bell ring when Holy Resurrection Church was consecrated in 1796. In addition, I believed the loan of the bell from the Catholics to the Orthodox would be good for ecumenical relations and good publicity for Orthodox Christianity in America.

I am not sure who suggested that Pope John Paul II be asked if the loan of the bell could be arranged. The Pope was due to visit Los Angeles in September of 1987. I drafted a letter to the Pope with the request. One of my parishioners at St. Innocent Parish in Tarzana, California, Bernard Wilson, was the Chief of Police at the Los Angeles Airport. Chief Wilson was to be one of the greeters when the Pope arrived.

This is Chief Bernie Wilson’s description of the Pope’s arrival: “Before we met, I told a Vatican secretary that I had the letter and wanted to give it to him. He told me that His Holiness didn’t accept things in those circumstances, but I could give the letter to him (secretary) and he’d make sure it got to the right place. When we got in line and the Pope approached me, I said: “Holy Father, I’m Orthodox. I pray for unity. He shook my hand (we were told he preferred that over ring-kissing) and kept going. He stopped, came back and said “Me too. Every day. Don’t stop.” I told him “The Orthodox community here has sent you a letter about links between Catholic California and Orthodox Alaska. Please read it.” He blessed me and kept going. I was the only one he talked to. I was the only one he blessed. I was a bit worried that it was too much English to grasp, but he seemed to understand.”

In the meantime, I wrote a letter to His Grace Tikhon, Archbishop of San Francisco and sent a copy to His Beatitude, Metropolitan Theodosius, primate of the Orthodox Church in America. I attached the article I had written tracing the history of the Russian mystery bell and suggested that the loan of the bell be pursued. I did not receive a response. I also met with the representatives of Alaska Airlines to arrange the transfer of the bell, if the loan was accepted. They were very interested in the publicity and would have followed through and transported the bell to Alaska and returned it after the celebration. My request never went anywhere. The Orthodox bishops were not interested due to questions about the bells authenticity and Fr. Weber, the Archivist at the San Fernando Mission Museum, did not support the loan of the bell. It also was presumptuous on my part that I could pull off such an important ecumenical endeavor.

In 1995, I moved from the Los Angeles area to St. Luke the Evangelist in Palos Hills, Illinois. In my files I had the research I had collected on the history of the Russian mystery bell. When St. Luke Parish established a website, I posted the article along with other information about Russian church bells. In 2002, the parish purchased a new set of seven bells cast in the Ural Mountains in Russia. They were blessed in memory of the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attack. At some point, Jesuit Fr. Raymond Bucko must have come across St. Luke’s web page on the Russian mystery bell. He contacted me with the suggestion that the bell be repatriated through the Native American associations. This seemed like a positive idea and I went along with it. To verify the history of the bell, I contacted Mark Galperin, general manager of Blagovest Bells in San Rafael, California. I met Mark though the purchase of St. Luke’s set of Russian church bells. Matthew Namee, a well-known Orthodox Church historian, was also contacted. Through e-mails between Fr. Bucko, Mark, Matthew and myself, it was discovered that the bell Fr. Weber described in his brochure was not located at the San Fernando Mission Museum. It had been there, but was given many years ago to the Rancho Camulos Museum in Piru, California. I asked my son Justin who lived nearby to see if he could find the bell and photograph it. He found it in a storage shed at the Rancho Camulos Museum and was given permission to take photographs. There were now two Russian Mystery Bells. It was concluded that they could be part of a set of Russian church bells. Usually Russian bells come in sets of three.

His Eminence, Archbishop Benjamin of San Francisco and the West of the Orthodox Church in America pursued repatriating the bell from the San Fernando Mission, Mark and I thought it may be possible to repatriate the other bell with the inscription from the Ranchero Camulos Museum if we offer them a new copy that could be rung when they have wedding ceremonies. An exact copy of the bell was cast in August 2012. Our plan was to offer the duplicate bell to the Museum in exchange for the historical Russian mystery bell. St. Luke Parish donated the duplicate bell with the stipulation that if the Rancho Camulos Museum refused to accept the copy, it would be retained by St. Luke Parish. A contract was signed that the exchange of bells had to take place within two years. The new bell was shipped from Russia to San Francisco and was stored in Archbishop Benjamin’s residence. Fr. Bucko was successful in arranging for the repatriation of the bell from the San Fernando Mission, however, a copy was needed as a replacement. The only copy that was available was the duplicate bell in Archbishop Benjamin’s residence. Bishop Benjamin asked me if I would agree to loan him the copy, which would be exchanged when the mission bell was repatriated. A second bell would be cast. I reluctantly agreed explaining that St. Luke Parish would have to be informed about the change in the contract. The bell hanging at the San Fernando mission was repatriated at the annual Native American Tekakwitha Conference on July 21, 2013 and was shipped to Alaska. It arrived on October 1, 2013 and was officially received on October 19, 2013 by Archbishop Benjamin. It is now on display in the Narthex of St. Herman’s seminary. I had the honor of accompanying Archbishop Benjamin to the San Fernando Mission for the April 11, 2014 delivery of the replica of the 1796 Kodiak bell. It is now on display at the San Fernando Mission replacing the one sent to Alaska. On August 9th, I participated in the Pilgrimage and Feast Day of St. Herman of Alaska. While visiting, I spoke to the new bishop of Alaska, His grace David, Fr. John Dunlap Dean of St. Herman’s Seminary, Daria Safronova-Simeonoff, Archivist of the Diocese of Alaska and Anjuli Granham, Curator Collections of the Baranov museum. Ms Granham agreed to help repatriate the bell with the Kodiak inscription from the Ranchero Camulos Museum but thought it was doubtful. She gave me copies of documents which show an interest in the Bell going back to the 1930s. She would consider asking the State of Alaska to become involved. She offered an invitation for me to do a guest interview on her Radio program about Alaskan history. As of this writing, Archbishop Benjamin has sent a letter to the director of the Rancho Camulos Museum requesting the exchange of the bell with the inscription. As far as I know, to date, there has not been a response.

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