The Story of The Acadian Bells:
Those of Prince Edward Island
The Yarmouth Herald, in its edition of Sept. 28, 1960, published a news item from Ottawa under the headline" "A Legend in P.E.I. - Chapel Bells Buried For Two Centuries."
Here are the three first paragraphs of this article: "A federal cabinet minister is looking for proof of a 200-year-old legend of buried chapel bells in his native province, Prince Edward Island. There are good grounds for believing the story is accurate, but no real proof. It is a tale of 18th-century wars, pioneer hardships and old racial recriminations. Angus McLean, Minister of Fisheries, said in an interview he would be willing to suggest an Army exercise to discover the lost bells if historians can say with any certainty that they did exist, and can point to the general area in which they might be found."
McLean, at the time, was chairman of the administrative group of federal and provincial ministers who were working on plans for the 1967 centennial of confederation.
The article adds that "it is known that the parishioners at Malpeque buried their chapel bell to prevent it from falling into the hands of the English. This bell was dug up a few years ago, and now is displayed in the United Church at Malpeque. It is assumed that those of Point Prim and St. Peters were also buried. Stories to that effect have been handed down since the arrival of the first Selkirk settlers there in 1803."
It is stated that "the history books are silent as to what happened to the other Roman Catholic chapel bells."
The Minister of Fisheries of 1960, even though he was said to be "a keen student of (his) island history," had certainly not read all the authors who wrote about his island, nor had seen all its church registers of the time.
The church registers of St. John the Evangelist parish at Port Lajoie (Charlottetown) start with the year 1720. In 1742, there were about 800 people on the entire island. In 1750, they had reached 2000. Around 1753, there were 3000 inhabitants.
It was during this year, 1753, Oct. 31, that M. Prevost, commissaire-ordinateur at Louisbourg, wrote to the Minister in France about the population of Ile St-Jean, the name given then to Prince Edward Island; "Everybody went to work emulously to build the parishes of Prime Point (St. Paul, south of Hillsborough Bay, Queens County), of the North East River (St. Louis, now Scotchfort, Queens County), of Malpec (Holy Family parish, Queens County) because that of St. Peter (at St. Peter's Harbour, Kings County) had been built before the last war...The parishes which are poor hope that you will not refuse them FOUR BELLS they beg you for."
These bells must have arrived shortly after, although I could not find the exact date of their arrival. And thus Acadia was endowed with four new bells, namely the bell of Prim Point, the Bell of the North East River, the Bell of Malpec and the Bell of St. Peter.
In 1758, according to tradition, when the Acadians from St. Peter learned that the English troops had arrived at Port Lajoie (Charlottetwon), they stripped the church of everything that could be taken out, which they buried in the ground. Aug. 9, 1871, this 113 years later, a Mr. Barry, who lived close to the site of the old St. Peter's church, at St. Peter's Harbour, while plowing his field, struck with his plow a big bell, which could not have been but the St. Peter's Bell. It was given to the Catholic parish of St. Alexis, at Rollo Bay, about ten miles from St. Peter's Harbour. It is still there, having though undergone a few changes. In fact, when it was disscovered it was cracked, it was sent to the Meneeley Company of West Troy, New York, to be cast over again. Actually, it bears in French the following inscription: "Jesus - Mary - Joseph. P. Cosse made me - Mechlin (in Belgium) 1871. I was withdrawn from the ruins of a church of a village in P.E.I. In 1882, the parishioners of Rollo Bay had me cast anew by Meneeley and Co. of West Troy, N.Y., in souvenir of their Acadian ancestors."
Of the other bells of Prince Edward Island, we know the fate of only one, that of Malpec, even though we know but little of the vicissitudes that it must have suffered during the years which followed the Expulsion. It is now in the belfry of the United Church of Malpec. On it are inscribed the following Latin words, from the Gospel of St. Matthew, chap. 11, verse 11: INTER NATOS MVLIERVM NON SVREXIT MAIOR JOANNES BAPTISTA, "Among those born of women, none are greater than John the Baptist."
If the four parishes which were the daughters of the mother church, that of Port Lajoie, had their bells, we can be sure that the said mother church had its bell also, although there are no records to that effect. The only reference to a bell here is to be found in the state of the chapel and of the house of Port Lajoie in the Island of Saint John," which "state" was outlined in 1737 by Father Caradet, a Recollet Father, who had been pastor at Louisbourg, in which is mentioned a small bell that was used at the parish church.
Be what it may, there are at least two Acadian bells at what used to be the Island of St. John which are still in use, one at Malpec, the other at Rollo Bay. It is true that this other one, the Saint Peter's Bell, at St. Alexis' parish, is not exactly the original bell; it is though the same metal, in a new version, under a new form.
From Prince Edward Island, we will move next week to the St. John River, in New Brunswick, where the story of its bells is most interesting.