San Francisco Examiner

Historic SF bells silenced by thieves

By Sarah Yang


Monday, August 30, 1999
1999 San Francisco Examiner


For a century, the bells a Russian czar gave to Orthodox Holy Trinity Cathedral have survived earthquakes and fires - but over the weekend three of the bells fell into the hands of thieves.

"We never imagined somebody actually stealing them," said choir director Robert A. Parent. "Why would anybody want to? I cannot imagine what kind of value they would have to people other than to the church itself and to San Francisco."

In fact, members of the church considered the missing bells priceless. They were the smallest bells in a group of five given in 1888 by Russian Czar Alexander III to the church, the oldest Eastern Orthodox parish in the continental United States.

Cast in Moscow, the heavy bells adorned with decorative scrollwork are believed to be unique in the United States and rare even in Russia, where many bells were melted into ammunition during World War II.

A silver alloy was used to cast them, providing an unusually pure, distinct tone not found in modern-day bells, said the rector, the Rev. Victor Sokolov.

"It's an art form," said Sokolov. "Nothing exists today of this caliber anywhere."

The church and its bells are a popular attraction in The City. Guides regularly begin their tours by listening to the bells every Sunday at 10 a.m. at Van Ness Avenue and Green Street.

Choir members noticed the bells missing when they prepared to ring them before the 6 p.m. service on Saturday. At first they thought painters might have moved them, but an extensive search of the building failed to turn them up.

After a call to the painting company confirmed that workers had not moved the bells, church officials notified police.

Intruding in sacred space

"I'm just stunned," said Sokolov. "This is a sacred space, but it's not sacred anymore."

The bell tower stands some 50 feet off the ground, and normally is accessible only from inside the church. The doors of the church are locked and protected by an alarm system.

For the past 10 days, however, parts of the two-story wooden church have been undergoing repairs needed after a 1998 fire during Easter. The unsolved arson attack destroyed parts of the church and caused $20,000 in damage.

Church officials suspect the scaffolding surrounding the building and covered by a dark green canvas provided easy access and shelter to thieves.

In addition to the five Russian bells, two others cast in the same time period in the United States make up the complete set of seven bells.

Each bell represents a different tone, the smallest bell of about 10 inches in diameter providing the lighter sounds, while the largest "Great Bell" provides deeper tones.

Anyone absconding with a bell would need to cut or untie the cables and clamps supporting it from the beams of the tower and then either carry it down the narrow scaffolding or lower it, perhaps with a rope.

Sokolov said the theft would be an impossible feat for one person, and a difficult task for two.

In response to the theft, church officials have moved some of the bells inside but left the two largest - one of them weighing 5,765 pounds and presumably too heavy to steal without heavy machinery.

Sound of The City

Neighbors were shocked at the news of the missing bells.

"It's a part of the community," said Violeta Ruiz-Gavira, who lives in an apartment building next to the church.

"(The bells) are great," said another resident, Paul Maddox. "It's something you don't hear very often. I'm from the suburbs, so when I hear the bells, I think of it as being part of (living in) The City."

For Sokolov, the bells were an intimate part of the church and its history, symbols of continuity and survival. They were created to celebrate the escape of Alexander III from an assassination attempt, and they survived the earthquake and fire of 1906. That same fire destroyed the original cathedral.

"The bells were always there," Sokolov said. "Always the bells will be tolling."

Choir members would ring the bells manually to signal the start of church services Saturday evening and Sunday morning and during holidays. The bells would also occasionally accompany a cappella singers in the church.

In the absence of the lighter, joyous tones created by the smaller bells, the music that remains is one of mourning, said Sokolov. "It's now the sound of a funeral," he said.

1999 San Francisco Examiner