The bells of St. Mary’s, and the tug of war over them

Parish to decide whether bells from shuttered Lake Church landmark will be sent to Africa or remain in the Town of Belgium

DUELING PLANS FOR the bells from St. Mary’s Church in Lake Church, which closed last year, are being considered by the parish Finance Committee. The three bells in the tower were bought with donations from parish members and installed when the church was built in 1885. The second largest of the bells, shown at left, is three feet across. Photo by Sam Arendt
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

While church bells usually bring members of a parish together, the bells at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Lake Church are dividing the congregation.

Divine Savior Parish is debating whether to keep the bells and use them to create a memorial at St. Mary’s Lake Church Cemetery or whether to send them to a church in Africa.

A Save the Bells committee has been formed by longtime parishioner Bob Hubing, who said the bells are “probably one of the last things we can have from our church that will last through time.”

“Everybody was a little disappointed with the closing of the church last year,” he said. 

But losing the bells, which for generations tolled for Masses, funerals and deaths, would be wrong, Hubing said.

“Let’s take our bells down and place them in a beautiful monument in our cemetery,” he said. “It would provide us with some closure.”

The church, he noted, is for sale and could possibly be torn down. Then the bells would be the only remaining part of the church that was the center of religious life in the community.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people and they share my vision — overwhelmingly share my vision,” he said.

Don Hamm, chairman of the Divine Savior Parish Finance Committee, said the parish was approached by a priest about the idea of removing the bells and sending them to a parish in Africa.

The priest, Father Jim Weyker, served in Africa for much of his career, Hubing said.

But, Hamm emphasized, no decision has been made on the matter. He’s trying to schedule a meeting of the committee to discuss the issue, he said, recognizing that people are concerned.

“A lot of people are hurting,” he said. “This is still in the discussion stage. We’re listening to all the comments coming in.

“Nothing’s going to happen anytime soon.”

Weyker would not comment on the issue.

Hamm said that after the last Mass was celebrated at the church last year, the parish approached the Luxembourg-American Cultural Society in Belgium to see if it might be interested in preserving the church as a piece of Luxembourger history in the area.

“That just didn’t pan out,” he said.

The church is for sale, Hamm said, although it’s not listed with a real estate agent.

Since the church closed, he said, the parish has moved a number of items from  it to its Holy Cross Chapel, including the Stations of the Cross, statues, chalices and a large cross. A small stained glass window depicting Mary has also been removed so it can be refurbished and moved to the Holy Cross Chapel.

“We’ve done a lot of things to try to move the culture, the remembrances, to where we worship now,” Hamm said. “We are trying to preserve as much as we can of our joint heritage.”

The bells, though, are special, many parishioners said. 

According to Kevin Wester, a historian who is working on a pictorial history of Lake Church to be published next year, the bells were purchased in 1885 with donations from parish members. They were made by the Henry McShane Bell Co, of Baltimore — the only American bell company still in existence today — and shipped by train to Belgium, then moved by horse and buggy to the new church.

The three bells measure four feet, three feet and 26 inches in diameter and are made of solid bronze, said Wester, who noted five generations of his family were parishioners. They rang for daily Mass, funerals and the daily Angelus for more than 100 years, as well as to announce deaths, until they were silenced in the mid-1980s when the parish converted to an electronic carillon system.

“I think it would be important for at least one of the bells to be saved and placed in St. Mary’s Cemetery along with a historic sign telling the parish’s history,” Wester said, noting the parish existed for 164 years, from 1848 to 2012, when Divine Savior Parish was formed. 

“This would certainly help former parishioners, near and far, to grieve the loss of their parish and church and to celebrate the pride we all have in St. Mary’s Parish and St. Mary’s Church. 

“It is only fitting that such a tribute would be made to honor our ancestors and to celebrate our rich tradition of faith.”

Father Jim Ernster, who grew up in the area and celebrated sacraments such as First Communion and his first Mass at St. Mary’s Lake Church, said the bells are a symbol of the church that should remain as a tribute to the parish.

“If we have one thing left, it might be the bells,” he said. “I feel terrible about it. The school is gone. The convent is gone. The church is going to be gone. There will be nothing there.

“There should be some kind of memorial.”

Hubing said he has memories of watching children ring the bells, pulling on a rope that would lift them into the air as the bells tolled.

“I remember working on our family’s land with my dad. You would hear the bells and know someone had died,” he said.

Hubing said he made his case to keep the bells to the Divine Savior Parish Council, hoping to impress them with how much the bells mean to many parishioners.

He said he appreciates that Weyker wants to acquire the bells and ship them to Africa where he lived and worked for years.

“I understand it,” Hubing said. “But we have a connection to them.”

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