“While the bells were sounded, and the guards fired a salute we entered the church singing the Te Deum (“Thanks be to God”), and thus our arrival was the cause of mutual and very great rejoicing.”
Father Pedro Font’s account of the arrival of the Juan Bautista de Anza expedition at Mission San Luis Obispo on March 2, 1776, is the first account that we have concerning the ringing of bells at our Mission.
De Anza was leading more than 200 women, men and children from Sinaloa and Jalisco in Mexico to settle the port of San Francisco and create the pueblo of San Jose at the very southern end of the bay.
The colonists were not happy campers.
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They had spent the previous night at the Native American village of Rancheria dell Buchón in Price Canyon. They dressed in their best garments for their arrival at San Luis Obispo. They had not encountered other Spanish speaking people since leaving Mission San Gabriel on Feb. 21. Their route through Price Canyon took them across today’s Marsh St. The late winter rains made the street live up to its anglicized name. The colonists were covered with mud. Still, Font could write that the sound of the bells led to “very great rejoicing.”
Bells have played a significant role in Christian worship since at least 680 when, according to St. Bede, the patron saint of history wrote about Italian bells being hung in Wearmouth and Whitby abbeys.
These abbeys were under the regulations or “rule” established by St. Benedict in the sixth century. There were eight daily prayer periods. Since there were no pocket or wrist watches, a “sexton” would be assigned to ring a bell with a certain pattern for each period. The sexton would know the hour through the means of sand glasses, water clocks or specially marked candles. When the sun was out, sun dials would be used to calibrate the time to start the primitive clocks as darkness approached.
As time went on, abbeys got more bells, and their use expanded beyond the call to prayer. Bells could be used to warn of a raid by Vikings, fire or flood. They pealed joyously on holidays and invited the surrounding country to religious services and festivals.
Bells could welcome travelers just as priests Joseph Cavaller and Pablo Mugártegui did for the De Anza expedition in 1776. We do not know what happened to the bells that were used at that time.
Historians acknowledge that Mission San Luis Obispo has been famous for its bells and bell ringers for 200 years, since 1818, when Father Luis Antonio Martinez ordered four bells from Manuel Vargas in Lima, Peru. We will be writing about their colorful history over the next several weeks.
In the meantime, I’d like to invite you to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the casting of the bells. Our annual benefit for historic preservation at Old Mission San Luis Obispo, La Mesa de los Padres, will honor the bells and the bell ringers from both the past and the present from 6 to 8:45 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 18. Louis Ortega will provide entertainment in the mission gardens. Bill Fieldhouse and Del Monte Café will prepare a dinner worthy of Luis Antonio Martinez on the feast day of our patron Saint, St. Louis the Bishop.
If you are interested in taking part in this joyous event, call the mission parish office at 805-781-8220.
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I’ll be speaking on the history of San Simeón from the earliest times to 1957 on Thursday, Aug. 2, with topics ranging from Salinan fisheries, quarries and trails, the Rancho San Simeón en la playa, Portuguese shore whaling, cinnabar mining, George Hearst and the coming of the Roosevelt Highway. Join us at the Cambria Historical Society’s Historical Museum, 2251 Center St. at 3:30 p.m. For reservations, call Penny Church at 805-927-1442 email at firstname.lastname@example.org.