The Story of The Acadian Bells:
Maine, St.-Pierre-et-Miquelon, and California
In the State of Maine: Acadia, for a time, extended into the State of Maine. There were then two important places which had their church, namely Pentagoet (Penobscot, in the Castine region) and Nanrantsouak, which was a small Indian village on the Kennebec River, way in the interior, in the vicinity of Norridgewock, about six miles south of Skowegan.
Father Sebastien Rasle, a Jesuit priest, arrived here, at Nanrantsouak, in 1693, where he built a chapel for the Indians. The people from Boston coveted the region, mostly for the trappers. During the winter of 1705, the soldiers of Colonel Hilton of Massachusetts came here and set on fire the church and the Indian huts and wigwams. The church was rebuilt.
Later, when the trappers tried to exercise their trade in the region, they were far from being welcome. The blame was put on father Rasle's shoulders.
August 23, 1724, the troops of Governor Dummer of Boston invaded Nanrantsouak. Father Rasle, to divert the attention of the soldiers from his parishioners, presented himself to the soldiers, who, in the midst of howls and shouts, riddled his body with bullets, mutilated it as much as they could and carried trimphfully his scalp to Boston. When everybody had left, the Indians came to bury what was left of the body of their dear "Black Robe." "They found him pierced with a thousand shots, his scalp torn off, his skull crushed by hatchets, his mouth and eyes full of mud, his leg-bone broken and all his members mutilated in a hundred different ways."
Two years before, in the course of the Winter of 1721-22, Colonel Thomas Westbrook had come from Boston and devastated once more the village, burned the church and 33 wigwams. At the approach of the enemy, Father Rasle had hidden in the woods all that he could, including the bell of his church. Unfortunately, they did not include his coffer, which was brought to Boston with its most valuable papers.
In 1808, the bell was found under an old dried hemolck. It was taken to Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, Maine. From here, it was taken to the Museum of the Main Historical society [sic]. Today it is resting on the floor of the museum in the manner of the Indians whom it had summoned so many times to the divine services; here, in company of Father Rasle's coffer, it stands as a witness of the cruelties which marred too many times in those days the stillness of the forest, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the apostolate of one of the most devoted missionaries Indians have ever had, who gave his life so that his parishioners would be spared. Father Rasle was a polyglot. He left us a dictionary of the Abenaki language.
Whenever in Portland, it would be worth your while to visit these relics, at 485 Congress Street, also to go to Norridgewock to see the tall monument at the very spot where Father Rasle was slain. It was blessed by Bishop Fenwick of Boston in 1833.
Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon: There was a bell at Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon, which was taken to Halifax at the time of the conflicts between France and England, although there is nothing which is given either of its origin or of its fate. All that we know is that, around the end of the 19th century, this bell was brought to Halifax as a booty of war. It was bought for the new Catholic church of Halifax (the future cathedral) which received its steeple in 1793-94.
It is not said anywhere when this bell arrived in Halifax. But according to the date just mentioned, it could have been during the war which the Revolutionary Government of France declared on England in February of 1793. In the spring, an expedition had left Halifax for Saint Pierre-et-Miquelon and seized the island without firing a single shot.
In California: At Riverside, which is located at about 40 miles east of Los Angeles, there is a hostelry called "The Gleenwood Mission Inn." It was built in the 19th century by Mr. Frank A. Miller (1857-1935), who was interested, not only in the hostelry business, but also in history, particularly in old bells and old crosses. In 1926, he had in his collection 524 bells. When he died, he had around 650 bells and 316 crosses. Since then, his successors have continued to add more bells and more crosses. That is the reason why the inn has become to be known as "The Inn of the Bells."
Those bells are of all ages and of all forms and from every country. There is one which, it is claimed, dates way back to the time of Our Lord, although made differently than our bells. There is to be found the bell that was used by the town crier of Bedford, Massachusetts, the night when the famous ride of Paul Revere took place. There is also the bell that Father Damien used to call to the morning and evening prayers his lepers of Molokai. There is one even that Mr. Miller was not ale to acquire unless the American congress pass a bill to this effect. And there is one which is called The Evangeline Bell, which, in the catalogue, bears the number 82. It might be the one which is most interesting, at least for us, on account of its romantic story.
It is of bronze, suspended from a U shape iron yoke, spread like an inverted arch. According to its story, it would have belonged to one of the transports of Boston which came to Nova Scotia to get the Acadians and bring them into exile along the coasts of the United States. This ship sank and stayed at the bottom of the sea many years. When it was retrieved, the metal of the bell was somewhat tarnished. Mr. Miller acquired it from a Mr. Sid Pelton.
There are no records in history to the effect that a transport bringing the Acadians into exile on the coast of the U.S. had sunk. It must have happened after it had accomplished its mission. An author, who seems to write with authority (although he does not give his source), says that the bell came "from San Blas." North of Panama, there is the Gulf of San Blas, and in Panama itself, that location, which is the narrowest between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, is called the Isthmus of San Blas. No transport, bringing the Acadians into exile, sailed any further south than the State of Georgia. Be what it may, we have no reason not to believe in the authenticity of The Evangeline Bell of The Inn of the Bells.
And that is the story of the Acadian bells. It is very much also the story of the Acadians themselves. At the time of the happy days in Acadia, they sang merrily the joy, the peace, the bliss of the country life of the people. At the time of the turmoil, their fate was again that of the Acadians. Like the people, they were massacred, hidden, exiled, transported from one place to another. Those which have survived were so delapidated that they were hardly of any use, somewhat like the Acadians whom a long exile or a meticulous manhunt had practically exhausted.
If today they could make their voices heard, it would not be only to sing the pride of a glorious past or to weep on the calamities of the bloody tyranny of yore. It would still be to accomplish the mission that our forefathers had entrusted them with, to glorify the Lord with their resounding clamours in the name of the Acadian people.