San Francisco Examiner

Stolen bells back at church

1888 gift from Russian czar left on S.F. cathedral's steps

By Malcolm Glover


Sept. 1, 1999

The three historic church bells stolen from the Orthodox Holy Trinity Cathedral in San Francisco have been returned.

The bells were part of five bells that were given to the church - the oldest Eastern Orthodox parish in the continental United States - in 1888 by Russian Czar Alexander III.

The Rev. Victor Sokolov said the bells were found on the front steps of the church, at Van Ness Avenue and Green Street, at 8 a.m. Wednesday by painters who were repairing damage from an arson fire in 1998.

"A man came to the door of the church yesterday (Tuesday)," Sokolov said, "and told my daughter that he had the bells but emphasized that he hadn't stolen them.

Sokolov said the man told his daughter that he had bought the bells from another man "on the street" for $250.

He said he didn't realize that they had been stolen until he read about it in the newspapers.

The man did not have the bells with him but said that he would return them back to the church. He apparently returned them sometime late Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning, Sokolov said.

The bells did not appear to be damaged, Sokolov said.

San Francisco police were on their way to the church Wednesday morning to verify the bells' return and check for any possible evidence that might lead them to the person who took them.

Choir members noticed the bells missing when they prepared to ring them before the 6 p.m. service on Saturday. At first they thought they might have been removed by the painters but a subsequent check showed them to be missing.

The bells are also rung for Sunday morning services and on holidays.

Cast in Moscow, the heavy bells, adorned with decorative scrollwork, are believed to be unique in the United States and rare even in Russia.

Many church bells in Russia were melted into ammunition during World War II.

In making the bells, a silver alloy was used which gave the bells an unusually pure and distinct tone that is not found in modern day bells, Sokolov said.

"It's an art form," he said, adding that "nothing exists today of this caliber anywhere."

The bells were created to celebrate the escape of Alexander III from an assassination attempt.

Although the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed the original cathedral, the five Russian bells and two others cast in the United States in the same time period, survived.

1999 San Francisco Examiner Page A 1