Historic Russian Bell, Only One of Its Kind, Discovered in Tower of San Francisco Church

Something Bay Folks Overlooked, Visitor did not, Shown Bellow

Escape of Czar and Family, in Rail Death Plot, Commemorated by Casting of the Piece

By NADIA LAVROVA

 

It is claimed that a casual tourist finds out more about the city he visits than the lazy native who has lived there all his life.

Thus, when Mrs. Alice Harriman, noted author, literary critic and Campanologist, came to San Francisco from Hollywood for Jubilee Week, she discovered a unique Moscow bell hanging in the belfry of the Russian Holy Trinity Cathedral, located on the corner of Van Ness avenue and Green Street.

BELL IS UNIQUE

This Russian Bell is indeed a "find." There is no chance of ever unearthing its duplicate or twin. Words cast in heavy bronze around its rim state that it was made expressly for the cathedral at San Francisco to commemorate the miraculous escape from death of a Russian emperor.

This bell was not seen by San Francisco, nor its historical value is known. Yet its deep, full voice rings often over the city. A blond Russian climbs the belfry tower every Sunday and sometime oftener. He rings this large bell and several clusters of smaller ones surrounding it with an art dear to the heart of Russian churchgoers. Seven separate and distinct church tunes can he play upon his great bells. Mrs. Harriman was surprised to hear that no radio management had ever thought of broadcasting this pleasing music, originated in Russia almost a thousand years ago.

THE INSCRIPTION

The inscription in old church Slavic along its top is taken from "The Song of the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete" and reads: "A Helper and Protector hath revealed Himself to me unto salvation; He is my God and Him will I glorify: the God of my fathers, and Him I will exalt, for greatly hath He glorified Himself."

The inscription around the body of the bell says: "For the Cathedral of the Orthodox American Mission, in the City of San Francisco, this bell has been cast."

This inscription is in Russian, as also the one along the brim, but Russian written in Slavic Characters. The words along the brim state: "To commemorate the miraculous escape (from death) of the Russian Emperor Alexander III and his august family on October the 17th. During the authority of Vladimir, bishop of Alaska, through the prayers of the hiero-monk Jonah. 1888."

STORY OF THE BELL

It is the lower inscription that gives the bell its historical interest. Alexander III, father of the last Czar, was traveling with the family through Russia, when his train was derailed, probably in an attempt against his life. The imperial family, however, escaped unharmed, which was the cause of much official celebrating. There is no doubt that many a bell was cast and given to the churches on that occasion. But "our" bell is unique because it was the only one cast especially for San Francisco, according to the inscription upon it, and sent to far-away America.

As a compliment to this country the founder had the name of his firm cast in English upon the bell, enclosed in a beautifully figured frame. It says: "Moscow. N. D. Finlandsky's Bell-Foundry." In a similar frame on the opposite side of the bell its weight is given in Russian, 144 poods and 5 pounds. Now a pood contains forty Russian pounds and only thirty-six American pounds, wherefore the net weight of the bell must be 1,588 pounds.

The bell is covered with decorative designs that look like lace engraved in bronze. They do not detract, however, from its majestic, clean-cut shape. Four great medallions - of Jesus Christ, the Holy Virgin, St. John and another saint - break the monotony of the inscriptions. Mrs. Harriman is sure that this bell is the largest in San Francisco. She is now intent upon comparing its dimensions to those of other mission and church bells. But, according to her: "No other bell in California and perchance not in the United States, can compare with it in shape and workmanship."

The history of the Russian bell, after it arrived in San Francisco, is also unusual. It was destined for the Russian Cathedral, which stood at the corner of Washington and Polk streets, before the fire of 1906. The church burned down, but this bell, miraculously intact, according to Father Sakovich, was transported into the new Holy Trinity Cathedral, where it now hangs.

Mrs. Harriman will revise the manuscript of her book, almost complete, in order to include complete data about her San Francisco "find." This is not the first rare bell she has discovered, either. It was Mrs. Harriman who found "The first mission bell," also Russian in origin, hanging in an orange grove near Los Angeles. According to the inscription upon it, it was cast on the Island of Kodiak, in Alaska, by the Russian arch-priest Eugene in 1796, being ninety-four years older than the one in San Francisco, but boasting of neither such beautiful workmanship nor such historical interest.

San Francisco Examiner, September 27, 1925, Sunday, p. 1N

Reprinted in the Holy Trinity Cathedral LIFE, Vol. 4, No. 1, September 1996