Silent for most of the last 150 years, the bells of St. Joseph Cathedral ring once again…in Forest Lawn

Silent for most of the last 150 years, the bells of St. Joseph Cathedral ring once again…in Forest Lawn

DATE

August 5, 2021

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Generous donation restores a remarkable piece of Buffalo’s history and gives it back to the community.    

A new chapter in a fascinating but generally forgotten story has been written within the gates of Forest Lawn. More than 150 years after their original installation in Buffalo’s St.Joseph Cathedral, seven of the bells that were part of cathedral’s original 43 bell carillon, which has been silent for most of that time, now once again ring out in Forest Lawn, thanks to the generosity of a cemetery volunteer and his wife.

Combined with the largest of the St. Joseph’s bells, the iconic “Oishei Bell” which has been in place at Forest Lawn since 1975, these bells create the new “St. Joseph’s Carillon,” which is now rung each time a funeral committal enters the Delaware Avenue gate for the interment of a cremated or casketed individual within the gates of Forest Lawn.

The Backstory: From Paris to Buffalo to…Storage

  • In the late 1800’s, the first Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, John Timon decided that as a legacy he would purchase and leave for posterity a 43 bell carillon that at the time was the largest of its kind in the United States and the third largest in the world.
  • The bells were cast by Bollée et Fils in Mans, France. They earned a gold medal at the Paris Exposition in 1867 and remained on loan in France until 1869.
  • The carillon was then shipped to Buffalo, but unfortunately Bishop Timon died before he could hear the bells ring. The carillon was installed in the “old” St. Joseph Cathedral in August, 1870.
  • However, the bells never functioned properly in the cathedral’s steeple as it was too small, so they were removed and put into storage where they remained for 50 years until the “new” St Joseph Cathedral was built at the corner of Utica and Delaware Ave. The bells were installed there in 1912.
  • But the steeple of the new cathedral was not strong enough to hold the bells. In fact, as we now know, the church itself was not constructed to handle Buffalo winters and had to be demolished in 1976.
  • Once the bells were taken down from the new cathedral, they were again put in storage in its basement in 1922, where 35 of the original 43 bells were stolen over course of the next 50 years – leaving only the eight largest bells.
  • After the demolition of the cathedral, a local scrap dealer (Michael Dozoretz of the Lancaster Steel Service Company) purchased the eight remaining bells from the Diocese of Buffalo. Patricia Oishei Colby, daughter of the late businessman and philanthropist John R. Oishei, acquired the largest of the bells from the merchant and donated it to Forest Lawn, where in 1975 it was dedicated to her late father, who is interred in Forest Lawn.  The “Oishei Bell” was installed on an ornate marble base that was salvaged from the demolition of the “new” St. Joseph Cathedral. Since that time, it has tolled whenever a funeral procession enters the gates of Forest Lawn.
  • In 1987, the other seven bells from the original St. Joseph’s carillon were donated to Forest Lawn by Mr. Dozoretz. The bells were placed in storage at Forest Lawn while opportunities for their eventual use could be explored.

A Benefactor Steps Forward to Make the Vision a Reality

A project to bring the seven bells out of storage and allow them to be experienced by the community like never before was conceptualized.  In 2020, on the 150th anniversary of the carillon’s original installation in St. Joseph Cathedral, that vision become a reality, thanks to the generous support of a Forest Lawn volunteer and his wife, Gerald “Jerry” and Barbara Kelly.

“When I started serving as a docent at Forest Lawn three years ago, I became aware of the story of the St. Joseph Cathedral Carillon,” said Gerald Kelly.  “As I researched it, my wife and I began to understand and appreciate the historical significance of the carillon, and we became committed to ensuring that this remarkable piece of Buffalo’s history would not only be preserved but restored to toll once again for the benefit of this community, as Bishop Timon had intended.  When we learned that Forest Lawn shared this vision, Barbara and I jumped at the opportunity to make it a reality, ideally this year – 150th anniversary of the bells’ installation in St. Joseph Cathedral.”

With the financial support of the Kellys, the project to create a custom eight bell carillon within the gates of Forest Lawn was set in motion in 2020.  The bells were removed from storage at Forest Lawn and transported to Cincinnati, Ohio, where they were restored by the Verdin Company – a world-renowned manufacturer of cast bronze bells, carillons, clocks, towers and organs.

The bells were returned to Forest Lawn in September and hung from the newly designed and constructed arches above the Oishei Bell, creating the new customized St. Joseph’s Carillon.

“The story of the St. Joseph Cathedral Carillon is a fascinating one,” said James Wadsworth, Chairman of the Forest Lawn Cemetery Board of Trustees.  “We are very proud to write its final chapter here at Forest Lawn, which is fitting, as so much of Buffalo’s rich history, iconic sculpture art and architecture can be found within our gates.  We are so grateful to Jerry and Barbara Kelly for their generosity which made it possible to share this wonderful gift with Western New York.”

“The timing of this project is particularly significant for a couple of reasons,“ added Charles Kreiner, Chairman of the Forest Lawn Heritage Foundation Board of Directors. “First, last year was the 150th anniversary of the bells’ installation in St. Joseph Cathedral. As they now ring once again after being silent for most of that time, the bells stand as a much needed symbol of hope for rebirth and renewal as our community continues to struggle through this unprecedented health crisis.”

The COVID pandemic prevented Forest Lawn from officially dedicating the carillon and publicly thanking Jerry and Barbara Kelly until now.

Tolling the Bells in Tribute

The St. Joseph’s Carillon now tolls in honor of each individual, whether cremated or casketed, who comes to Forest Lawn for final rest and perpetual care.  At the moment a funeral procession enters the gates, the work of the cemetery stops and the tribute of the bells sounds.  This individual tribute is automatically recorded, and posted to a memorial page that is established on the Forest Lawn website for each individual who is interred in Forest Lawn.

In addition to tolling during all funeral processions, each day at 9:00 pm, the St. Joseph’s Carillon plays the De Profundis, which is a Latin term meaning “out of the depths (of sorrow, despair, etc.).”  It is the musical interpretation of a prayer commonly known as the “Prayer for the Dead” (Psalm 130).