Times Past

Celebrate the historic bells of Mission San Luis Obispo at this annual event

The original Manuel Vargas 1818 bells hang in the Mission San Luis Obispo garden on a platform donated by Maino Construction Co.
The original Manuel Vargas 1818 bells hang in the Mission San Luis Obispo garden on a platform donated by Maino Construction Co.

Pirates never landed at Pirates Cove near Avila Beach, but in 1818 Spanish Governor Pablo Vincente de Sola thought they might. He surmised they could be after the most valuable asset at Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa — the new bells.

Those bells were commissioned by Father Luis Antonio Martinez from Manuel Vargas in Lima, Peru, in 1818, paid for with money from the illegal trade of sea otter and beef hides and tallow.

Legends abound about Antonio Martinez protecting these bells by burying them in the sand to elude their capture by the French privateer, Hypolite Bouchard, who raided California’s coast in the service of Argentina. He landed 400 men and two well-mounted cannons and nearly destroyed the capital at Monterey.

Then Bouchard sailed south, past San Luis Obispo, and raided the Antonio Maria Ortega Rancho family at Refugio, reportedly because of Ortega’s well-known support of the Spanish monarchy that had granted him the ranch in 1794.

Antonio Martinez later boasted of his creating a small army that included fighting cocks to protect the mission. Tradition says that a year later, Gov. de Sola asked to see the army. Antonio Martinez paraded it before him, including the seven soldados, neophytes carrying spears, women carrying kitchen knives attached to sticks, children with sharpened stakes, fighting cocks, hens with sharp objects attached to their feet and bulls and cows affixed with artificial horns.

De Sola reportedly was convulsed with laughter by this putative force, assuring Antonio Martinez that our mission, with its precious bells, would have been well defended because of his actions.

Antonio Martinez went on to construct the beautiful three plus two-arch campanile to house the bells.

By the 188os, the campanile that had fallen into disrepair after the Franciscans left in the 1830s. A wood-framed New England-style bell tower was attached to the church in the mission garden.

Removed from the thick, adobe campanile, the sound of the now aging bells could be heard at much greater distance. They irritated J. Smeaton Chase, who visited San Luis Obispo in 1911, writing that the “bells, not remarkable for sweetness of tone, repeated four times, ending with three explosions fortissimo.”

Gregario Silviera, an Azorean immigrant, learned bell ringing patterns from the descendants of Native American bell ringers. Gregorio rang the bells for the NBC Radio National Christmas shows during the 1940s and ‘50s.

Unfortunately, by the 1970s their sound was gone, and the bells began to show signs of metal fatigue. In 2001, the mission began a campaign to replace the five original bells. Two had disappeared in the 1880s, and one had been recast and returned here about the same time. San Luis Obispo is the only mission to replace all the original bells.

The bells were cast in the Netherlands, not as perfect replicas of the flawed originals, but for the sweetness of their sound. Two original bells and the recast bell are on a platform in the mission gardens.

Today, 19 volunteers recreate Gregario’s patterns.

The Manuel Vargas bells are now 200 years old. 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 past and present Saturday from 6 to 8:45 p.m. Aug. 18. Guitarist-singer Louis Ortega will perform in the mission gardens. Bill Fieldhouse and Del Monte Café will prepare a dinner worthy of Father Luis Antonio Martinez on the feast day of our patron saint, St. Louis the Bishop of Toulouse.

If you are interested in taking part in this joyous event, call the mission at 805-781-8220.

Dan Krieger is Professor of History, Emeritus at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.
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