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July 23, 2008 > History: Washington Township Bells

History: Washington Township Bells

Bells are often designed for a special purpose, to ring out the good news, sound a welcome or call people together.

Bells were first brought to Washington Township at the founding of Mission San Jose and remained an important part of its history. Bells were used to summon people to prayers and worship, announce festivals, signal times for work, greet important visitors and as part of special events, ceremonies and processions. The sanctuary bell used during mass survived and is preserved in the Mission museum.

Four Mexican bells of various sizes and tones were eventually installed in the upper corner of the adobe church. The largest bell fell and was reportedly moved to St. Mary's in Oakland and recast in 1886. The 1868 earthquake destroyed the adobe church and the three bells fell. They were rescued and hung in the tower of St. Joseph Church where they tolled for over 100 years until the church was closed in 1973. All four bells were installed together in the new tower when the adobe church was reconstructed and then dedicated in 1985. A fifth smaller bell was apparently removed and hung from a sycamore tree on land farmed by James Hawley.

The mission bells are not the only historic bells in Washington Township. Mrs. Armitage Forbes started casting bells in 1906 to mark El Camino Real, the original road that connected the missions from San Diego to San Francisco. The bells were 18 inches in diameter, weighed over 100 pounds and were inscribed with the words "El Camino Real 1769-1906." By 1920 over 450 bells had been cast and placed to mark the route. A bell and sign were erected at Irvington in 1909 and another dedicated at Mission San Jose in 1915.

Al DuBurg purchased an El Camino Bell and donated it to the Washington Township Historical Society. This bell is now mounted in front of the mission. The Irvington bell is lost and the Mission San Jose bell stored.

The larger pioneer schools usually had bells mounted in towers. The two-story Irvington School had a large bell in its tower. This bell was acquired by the Berge family and eventually donated to the Museum of Local History. The Mowry Landing School bell came to Irvington when the district was merged with the Irvington School District and was moved to Mowry School when it was built in 1962.

Centerville School had a bell mounted in the tower above the front steps. A special tower for the bell was erected behind the new 1940 school, but the bell was stolen one dark night and never found.

The Mission San Jose bell hung in both the Ellsworth and Mission Boulevard schools. It was mounted in front of the new Bryant Street School and dedicated with special ceremonies. The old Niles bell was described as "a big brass bell" and apparently became part of the new school on Second Street.

The 1916 Newark Grammar School had a distinctive front design that featured three bells hanging in adjoining towers. A clapper is visible in the center bell, but some students recalled that they never heard the bell ring.

Some churches also had historic bells. The Alameda Presbyterian Church (now Centerville) was struggling in 1856 to get funds to build a church, but they raised $139 in a special offering to purchase hall furniture and lamps from an abandoned church in San Francisco. They now needed a steeple so they hired a local carpenter to build one for $250. This bell survived the 1868 earthquake and hung in the bell tower in the wooden "little white church" for over 100 years and was saved by church members.

St. Edwards Church had no bell at first so members took up a collection to purchase one. This bell is mounted by the side of the church. The regular bells are rung on a daily schedule and for masses on Sundays and special occasions.

When the original Holy Ghost Church (now Holy Spirit) was dedicated, a large bell was installed in the bell tower with the inscription in Portuguese, "1886 from the island of St. Jorge, made in Portugal, offered to Holy Spirit Church in Centerville." The bell has been silent for many years and not accessible, but it can be seen from the street today.

Pioneer volunteer firemen were sometimes called to fight a fire by a ringing bell. The first Mission San Jose firehouse had a bell mounted in a tower. The 200 pound bell was securely mounted but was stolen in 1941. The first dedicated firehouse at Niles had a fire bell. The Centerville bell cast in 1894 is probably the oldest survivor of the area. Fire bells were replaced by sirens and most have disappeared.

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