A Brief History of the Presidio Chapel Bells

by Tim Aceves

11,000 miles.

Presidio Chapel bell, dedicated San Pascual Bailon, present-day. Image by Tim Aceves.

That’s how many miles the bells at El Presidio de Santa Bárbara SHP have travelled since they were first cast in Mexico. From Zacatecas, Mexico, to San Blas, Mexico, to Santa Barbara, California, to Milton, Massachusetts, to Los Altos, California, and ultimately back to their home at the Presidio – these bells have had quite the journey since they were originally cast back in the late eighteenth century.

The Presidio Chapel bells, before installation in 2001. Photo by Michael H. Imwalle.

Both bells originate from Zacatecas, Mexico, where they were cast in 1781 and 1792, and each had quite a different journey before they were returned to SBTHP. The oldest, dedicated San Pascual Bailon, left El Presidio in 1855 when they were moved to Our Lady of Sorrows. In 1904, the bell was purchased by Spencer Borden of Massachusetts. Mr. Borden then left the bell to Milton Academy where it rang daily, calling students to class, until 1981.

Close-up of 1792 bell, dedicated to La Purísima Concepcíon. Photo by Michael H. Imwalle.

The second bell, which reads “LA PURISIMA CONCEPCION ORA PRO NOBIS ANO DE 1792” translates to “THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION PRAY FOR US YEAR OF 1792,” also went to Our Lady of Sorrows and remained there until 1929. It was then installed at El Retiro San Inigo Jesuit Retreat House in Los Altos, California. In 1978, El Retiro returned the bell to SBTHP.

Chapel bells being installed in 2001. Photo by Michael H. Imwalle.

In 2001, the bells were installed in the newly rebuilt Presidio Chapel bell tower, where they still ring loudly over the Presidio Neighborhood.

A fun fact…

As designs were being finalized in 2001, research was being conducted by Michael H. Imwalle, Associate Executive Director for Cultural Resources at SBTHP, as to how the bells were rung at the Presidio. They would have been used to call the residents of the Presidio for mass, the rosary, rations, and to sound quarters for the watch at night. They also regulated work schedules, welcomed the arrival of prominent visitors, signaled alarms, and celebrated festivities.

Gregorio Silverio pictured after World War II, from the San Luis Obispo Tribune.

During a visit to San Antonio Mission, Mike was shown a file that contained an inventory of seven Franciscan bell patterns from the last Indian bell ringer at San Luis Obispo Mission. Gregorio Silverio rang the bells for sixty-three years, beginning in 1889, and had been taught by the previous bell ringer Florentino Naja who had been ringing bells since 1820. Also on that inventory was a recording from 1947 or 1948 of Gregorio ringing the bells over the radio station KVEC. With the help of the San Luis Obispo Mission, they were able to locate a reel-to-reel recording and created a digital audio tape (DAT), which is now preserved at the Presidio Research Center.

To learn more about the travels of the Presidio Chapel Bells, please contact the gift shop to purchase La Campana, Spring 2017 where the article “Ups and Downs: The Well Travelled Bells of the Santa Barbara Presidio Chapel” by Michael H. Imwalle was originally published.

3 thoughts on “A Brief History of the Presidio Chapel Bells”

  1. Thank you for this reminder about the Presidio Bells. I remember much of the discussion regarding the bell tower reconstruction and the bells. Bravo to Mike Imwalle for his research.

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