The new bells of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Parramatta captured the imagination of Sydney this year: a happy story of the people’s love for their Diocese, 167 years in the making.
“I watched the steeple fall as it was burning. It was heartbreaking. There was a crowd of parishioners standing around praying. We couldn’t believe it.”
Yvonne Malouf paints a vivid picture of the fire which tragically destroyed the original St Patrick’s Cathedral in 1996. “But” she ponders, referring to the beautiful rebuild, “Perhaps God knew that we needed a bigger cathedral for our growing Diocese?”
Yvonne is one of several donors whose generosity completed the final piece of the 167-year plan for St Patrick’s Cathedral – the purchase and installation of a peal of eight church bells.
As the story goes, there were always plans for a peal of bells in St Patrick’s. Over the years, hopes grew, then faded as the fortunes of the citizens of Parramatta changed. The St Patrick bell arrived in 1904, surviving the fire of 1996, but remaining solo until this year.
In September, Bishop Vincent Long OFM Conv, Bishop of Parramatta, blessed the bells in a colourful, musical and moving ceremony dating back to the 16th Century. Livestreamed to over 1,000 people, covered by multiple media and attended by dignitaries and donors, it symbolised hope in an uncertain year.
Bernard Kirkpatrick, Director of Music at St Patrick’s composed a hymn especially for the bells. Campanae, using the words of Henry Charles Wilder, describes how bells are used in celebration, commemoration and worship. Other music included ancient Gregorian Chants and a cappella polyphony.
During the ritual, each bell was baptised with holy water and anointed with oils. The seminarians from Holy Spirit Seminary, Harris Park, played an active role, particularly as the cavity of each bell was filled with incense.
At the time of writing this story, the hard work of raising the bells up into St Patrick’s bell tower and fitting their pulleys and ropes was taking place. By the time you read this, Parramatta will have heard the bells ringing joyfully together at last.
The Gift of the Bells
Generous donors took the opportunity to give back to the Church and share their joy and gratitude, “We were boat people arriving here with nothing,” says bell donor Therese Nguyen Phan. “St Vincent de Paul embraced our family. North Rocks parish supported us.
“We have been given so much. Whatever we have belongs to God. When we looked at the donation of a bell, we thought it was calling life – a sign of happiness, or sadness, bringing people together,” she said.
Fr Peter Williams, Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, says “Our Cathedral is now complete and the fire of 1996 a distant memory. Hearing the bells of St Patrick’s will be an ongoing reminder of persistence, hope and regeneration.”
St Benedict – A
Ron Shepherd, a member of the Australia and New Zealand Association of Bell Ringers for 30 years was asked to name two bells. “St Benedict because there are connections with Australia – the first two Australian Archbishops were from the UK where most monasteries are Benedictine” he says. The St Benedict bell was donated by the members of the Association as a tribute to Ron’s 30-year dedication to bell ringing reveals President of the Association, Peter Harrison. “It’s a new bell – they don’t come up very often and we wanted to pay tribute to Ron with something special.”
St Brigid of Ireland – G#
Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta (CEDP) donated a bell to mark 200 years of Catholic education in our Diocese. “The St Brigid of Ireland bell now joins the St Patrick of Ireland bell” explains Greg Whitby, Executive Director of CEDP. The bell is also inscribed with the Indigenous inscription ‘Jesu Ngananala’ meaning ‘Jesus stands among us.’
St Bede the Venerable – F#
The St Bede bell was named after another English saint. Ron Shepherd chose the name on behalf of the donors, the Keltek Trust in the UK, who rehome bells for the love of the tradition of ringing.
St Anne – E
The family of Anne Vassallo selected the name St Anne. “Donating a bell was a special connection for my mother who grew up in the area and went to Mass at St Patrick’s,” says John Vassallo.
St Charbel – D
Yvonne Malouf chose the name of the bell her family donated after St Charbel Makhlouf of Lebanon. “We have always felt a closeness to St Charbel” she explains. “I feel he is always there for me and my family.”
St Michael the Archangel – C#
Friends Justine Ju and Priscilla Newman, and their families, chose the name St Michael the Archangel “Because currently, we are living through uncertain, challenging and troubling times. May we turn to St Michael, the Archangel for help and protection in our daily battle against all evil,” says Priscilla.
St Bernadette – B
The donors of the St Bernadette bell saw the saint as a reminder of humility and her connection to Mary who St Bernadette saw in visions at Lourdes in France. St Bernadette is also the patron saint of illness.
St Mary of the Cross MacKillop – Tenor A
The Nguyen Phan family selected the name of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop, donating the bell in honour of both Vietnamese Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, who was imprisoned by the North Vietnamese for 13 years, and French nun, Mother Marie-Adele Garnier, who the family prays to.
- The Australian New Zealand Association of Bellringers worked closely with the Diocese to source the bells from churches in the UK. The Bellringers will also fit the pulleys and ropes to the bells. They have gladly done this for the Diocese because they love ringing bells!
- Six of the bells are over 100 years old.
- The eight new bells are tuned to an octave in the key of A Major.
- The heaviest bell is St Mary of the Cross MacKillop at 405kg.
- St Benedict and St Brigid of Ireland are the newest bells, having been cast especially for St Patrick’s Cathedral in 2018.
- You can watch the video of the Blessing Ceremony here and view images here.
This article was originally featured in the Summer 2020/2021 Edition of the Catholic Outlook Magazine.