Historic church bell finds way to Tinley Park
A church building lacking a bell tower just won’t do at St. Julie Billiart Parish in Tinley Park.
Twice before, plans for a tower have been made — but scrapped because of funding issues — for the building that opened in 1996.
But persistence appears to have paid off, and now three old bells, at least one of which dates back more than a century and hasn’t been rung for at least 25 years, are part of a new project, according to St. Julie’s pastor, the Rev. Steven Lanza. A bell tower is expected to rise this year beside the church’s north entrance, facing 159th Street, thanks to the generosity of parishioners.
“The connections are wonderful, that we can take these bells and put them in this modern tower,” Lanza said.
At 60 feet tall, the tower — designed by architect Dante Domenella to simulate hands raised in prayer — is guaranteed to attract attention, especially when the bells are heard for the first time.
One of the bells rang for eight decades at Our Lady of Vilna Catholic Church, 2323 W. 23rd St., Chicago.
First opened in 1906 for a predominantly Lithuanian population in the city’s Pilsen neighborhood, the church was closed by the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1987.
After that, the bell’s fate is something of a mystery.
Lanza said the bell and two others “were lifted” from the Our Lady of Vilna property.
“Whoever had them held them for ransom and the archdiocese paid to get them back,” Lanza said. “Bells are blessed. They are sacred objects.”
But an archdiocese spokeswoman said only one of the bells came from Our Lady of Vilna, and that it wound up in a salvage yard. When the salvage yard was about to send it to a foundry to be melted down, someone noticed a Lithuanian inscription and contacted the archdiocese, which reacquired it, the spokeswoman said.
That bell and two others were displayed at St. Julie’s in November and are being refurbished by The Verdin Co. in Cincinnati, Lanza said.
“We didn’t want to have new bells because this is a great recycling thing. They should be ringing again,” Lanza said.
The bells are in working order.
“They’re fine. No cracks. No problems. But they’re really gnarly because they’ve been sitting outside for years. They’re bronze and have that (green) patina on them,” Lanza said.
The bell tower is part of a two-phase improvement at the church. The first phase was a $111,061 project last year to put a new roof over the church, which seats about 1,300, and the adjoining 100-seat chapel.
“(We had to put out) 16 buckets in the church every time we had a good rain, and three or four in the chapel,” Lanza said.
The second phase features new entry doors, two new canopies and the bell tower. The cost is estimated at $325,000, business manager Nancy Pfieffer said.
Over the next two weekends, parishioners will be asked to pledge donations to the effort, Lanza said.
“The people have been very generous. I think they want to hear the bells,” Pfieffer said.
The Lithuanian inscription on the former Our Lady of Vilna bell has been translated to read: “Bell, little bell, sorrowfully ring and proclaim the Miraculous Madonna of Ausros Vartu in Lithuania, where our enemies suppress us. Our oppressed fellow countrymen are comforted. Call us to prayer, to the Church, in her name, so that we may feel a part of God’s flock. Call us three times daily, without fail, and the deceased lead with your sound. From this day forward, speak to the living, and accompany the dead to the cemetery.”
Parishioner Daniel Kaminskas, 86, has fond memories of the sounds of bell-ringing.
“I lived near Our Lady of Vilna. The janitors would let us ring the bells once in a while,” he said.
He was one of seven children in the 1940 graduating class from Our Lady of Vilna School.
“Six boys and one girl, and she was Italian,” Kaminskas said.
Hearing the sound of bells again at St. Julie “will bring back memories,” he said.
“We used to ring the bells at night at 7 o’clock and every day at noon,” he said.
Unlike then, the bells won’t need anyone pulling a rope for them to be heard. That will be done electronically. The clappers will move and strike the sides of the bells, Lanza said.
Lanza is confident the tower will be constructed this time despite the failure of two previous plans.
“This will happen because we already have $100,000 left over from the roof project,” he said, “so it’s within our means.”