Do the Names Ring a Bell?

There’s more to the peals and chimes when it comes to a church’s bells. Many of them have well-known names.

Exhibition of the bells in Notre-Dame de Paris in 2013.
Exhibition of the bells in Notre-Dame de Paris in 2013. (photo: Luca Nebuloni/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0)

In the recent devastating fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, Anne-Geneviève was unscathed. Safe, too, were Denis, Marcel, Étienne, Gabriel and their companions who all occupied the North Tower.

In the South Tower, counted among those also miraculously unhurt in the devastation were Emmanuel and Marie. Emmanuel had been through much before, surviving the destruction of the French Revolution to announce the crowning of kings, visits from popes, major historical events like the end of World War II, and great Church feasts beginning with Christmas, Easter, and Holy Days.

Emmanuel is a bell. The largest at Notre Dame. His companions are also bells.

Yes, bells are given names! It’s nothing new. For centuries churches have traditionally named bells that ring from steeples across the landscape to call people to church on Sundays, remind them of the noontime Angelus, joyously proclaim weddings, sadly toll for funerals, and even play sacred hymns. According to New Advent, naming bells can be traced back to 969 when it appears Pope John XIII dedicated a bell to St. John the Baptist. In any event, the practice has been around since medieval times.

Not only are the bells usually named, but they are blessed, consecrated, anointed with oils, and — but wait. First, let’s get introduced to some bells and their names.


A Familiar Ring

Bells often get named because of some specific connections. Take St. John Cantius Church in Chicago. Its largest of four bells is named St. Anne because it is also the name of the church in Krakow where St. John Cantius himself served and is now buried. Weighing in at 5,500 pounds, this bell is considered the largest bell in a Catholic church in Chicago.

Another of the church’s bells has the double name of St. Anselm/St. Hedwig because Hedwig was a favorite saint of the early parishioners who emigrated from Poland.

The nearly 20 bells at St. Patrick Cathedral in New York arrived from France in 1897, but it’s easy to figure out what name was given to the largest bell, weighing 6,608 pounds. That’s right — St. Patrick.

The next largest is named after the Blessed Virgin Mary, then St. Joseph, the Holy Name, St. Michael, St. Anne and St. Elizabeth. Following in order are Sts. Augustine, Anthony, Agnes, John the Evangelist, Bridget, Francis Xavier, Peter, Cecelia, Helena, Alphonsus Liguori, Thomas Aquinas and Godfrey, who happens to be a French saint.

In Minneapolis, the Basilica of St. Mary has named its six bells after saints of the Americas — mainly North America. They honor St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first from the United States to be canonized a saint, then Sts. Juan Diego, Katharine Drexel, Kateri Tekakwitha, André Bessette and Venerable Pierre Toussaint. As often happens, all the bells have inscriptions. The one on Juan Diego proclaims the dedication of the bells took place on the Feast of Christ the King in 1998.

Sometimes the bells receive their names in Latin such as they do at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Denver. The names of the wonderful bells that first rang in 1912 have names that include Joannis Franciscus, Sanctus Hugo, Sancta Philomena, and Joanne de Arc. Other names exalt the Presentation, Verbum Dei (The Word of God) and Immaculata Conceptio (Immaculate Conception).

Parish churches are right alongside basilicas and cathedrals when it comes to naming their bells. In Houston, St. Luke the Evangelist Catholic Church got a bell in the late 1970s that had already been blessed by a bishop for a church in another diocese. The bronze bell’s name is Maria Guadalupe, and naturally, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

There is quite a story about the bronze bell named Joseph that rests high in the tower of Saint Francis De Sales Catholic Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. First of all, it happens to be the largest swinging bell cast in this country. That dates back to 1895. How large? At 17.5 tons, it’s four tons heavier than Big Ben in London. And it’s nine feet in diameter.

No wonder this bell is famously and affectionately known as “Big Joe.”

While this bell was meant to ring out as a swinging bell, it caused quite a flurry of excitement when it first rang that way in 1896. “Big Joe” gave out such a peal that it broke windows around the neighborhood and compromised the bell tower. Ever since, it still rings daily, but not by swinging — only by means of a huge hammer that taps away at it.


Old and New Names Mix

Let’s take one more look at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris with its mix of old and new names for the venerable bells and for the recently installed ones.

Emmanuel, remember, is the largest of all the bells. And the oldest. It dates from the 15th century, but in 1681, King Louis XIV had it recast. Providentially, it was spared the destruction of the French Revolution at a time when some of the cathedral’s other bells were removed and melted down.

Marie, the next largest bell, has two phrases engraved on it, one being “Je vous salue Marie” (Hail Mary). And like some bells, it also has a picture engraved upon it presenting the Nativity with the Baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the Adoration of the Magi.

Then we have eight newly-cast 21st-century bells, some with two saints’ names.

There’s Anne-Genevieve. It honors Our Lady’s mother St. Anne and also the patron saint of Parish, Genevieve. Then there’s Denis to pay tribute to St. Denis, third century Bishop of Paris and martyr. The bell Marcel remembers the fifth-century saint who was the ninth bishop of Paris, while Étienne (St. Stephen) is named after the first martyr.

The new bells also blessed and installed and ringing out for the first time in 2015 during Holy Week and the cathedral’s 850th anniversary carry names of those who are not yet up for sainthood, and in fact, one is still alive. Who might he be?

The first is named Benedict-Joseph in honor of Pope Benedict XVI. The next, is Maurice in honor of 12th-century Paris Bishop Maurice de Sully who placed the first stone to begin the cathedral’s construction. And rounding out the trio is Jean-Marie after a recent Paris bishop — Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger.


Consecrating and Naming Bells

The blessing, consecration and naming of bells has sometimes been called the “baptism” of the bells, which also had at times a “godfather” during the ceremony naming the bell. This ancient tradition goes back centuries.

Holy water, blessed salt and holy oils are used in this solemn ceremony that dates way back to at least the eighth century. The ceremony of blessing, naming and consecration includes prayers of exorcism, particular psalms, “washing” the bells, and several anointings — seven on the outside with the oil of the sick and four on the inside with chrism.

You can see a recent traditional blessing of church bells by Bishop Joseph Siegel at Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Naperville, Illinois, in 2013.

The Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis used this prayer as part of their ceremony:

Lord, from the beginning of time your voice has called to us, inviting us to communion with you, teaching us the mysteries of your life, guiding us on the way to salvation. With silver trumpets Moses summoned Israel to gather as your people. Now you are pleased that in the Church the sound of bells should summon your people in prayer. By this blessing accept these bells into your service. May their voice direct our hearts toward you and prompt us to come gladly to this church, there to experience the presence of Christ, listen to your word, offer you our prayers, and both in joy and in sorrow be friends to one another. We ask this through Christ our Lord.

So never mind London’s Big Ben. Right now it might be a good time to get acquainted with the names of the bells in your parish.