The Mystery of the Bell
As part of a newly installed exhibit about the reconstruction of the brick chapel, Historic St. Mary’s City has been fortunate to be able to borrow a significant 17th-century object from St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Compton, Maryland. This object is a copper alloy bell with a long provenance in Maryland.
The bell bears the date 1691 and the name of the maker, John Ardren. It also bears a makers’ mark in the form of a bell with what appears to be the letters “W” and “S” flanking. It is mounted on a late 19th- or early 20th-century hanging mechanism that is similar to bells illustrated in both Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Wards catalogs from the turn of the century. The bell has two longitudinal cracks so its tone is now somewhat dull.
Its history is quite complex and still not fully understood. Historians have attributed the bell’s origin to a number of sources through the years. Some have suggested that it was originally for use at the brick statehouse in St. Mary’s City since the Assembly appropriated funds for the purchase of a bell. However, given that the brick statehouse became a Protestant church after the removal of the capital one wonders how the Catholics would have ended up in possession of the bell. Several authorities have suggested that the bell is associated with the chapel in St. Mary’s and dates to the period after the Protestant Rebellion but before the official closing of the church in 1704. Others attribute the bell to an early phase of St. Francis Xavier parish since we know there was a chapel and probably a chapel house there before the present church was built.
We will continue to research this remarkable object over the next few months. Historic St. Mary’s City wishes to express our appreciation to the parish of St. Francis Xavier for their kindness in loaning us this remarkable object so we can share it with visitors to Maryland’s first capital.