This is the story of a big brass bell.
The bell, which stood three feet tall and weighed more than 850 pounds, first chimed at St. Casimir Catholic Church in Detroit, reminding Polish immigrants in the neighborhood of the start of Mass or the noonday Angelus. (St. Casimir’s was founded in 1882 and but the church building was completed in 1889. The bell would have begun its ministry of welcome shortly after that.)
When St. Casimir closed its doors in 1989, the bell was moved to St. Agatha in Redford, where it was in use until that parish, too, was shuttered in 2005. When St. Agatha’s was closed, Cardinal Adam Maida, then archbishop of Detroit, offered the bell as a gift to another old Polish parish, Sweetest Heart of Mary Church, located at the corner of Canfield and Russell Streets in Detroit, just north of Eastern Market.
And there it stood—a brass beauty on a brick and concrete pedestal in front of the church—from 2005 until this week.
Then last Thursday night, sometime between nightfall on May 23 and 7:30 the following morning, thieves with bolt cutters cut the lock on the tall iron gate, broke into the yard and dragged the behemoth from its pedestal. Scratch marks on the pedestal and along the path toward the street proved that the bell had been rolled, then dragged out the gate—apparently to a waiting vehicle. Handyman Dennis Felcyn discovered the theft on Friday morning as he prepared to mow the lawn; and the sad news was soon broadcast on local television stations.
Parishioners and all Detroit-area Catholics were saddened by its loss of this important piece of Detroit’s history. “We are an old Polish parish,” said Felcyn, “and [Cardinal Maida] thought it would have a good home here.” Detroit is known for its black market in stolen metals; and officials feared the bell had been smashed or melted down for scrap.
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Enter good citizen Bill Smith of Algonac.
Algonac is a small marine town at the southern end of the St. Clair River near the St. Clair Flats, about an hour’s drive north of Detroit. Smith is an avid collector and owner of a marine repair business there; and on Friday, he bought an old brass bell for $850 from a man driving a van. Inscribed on the bell was the name of a church where some of Smith’s family members had been married—so he knew he had to have it.
But then, Bill watched Channel 7 Action News at 6, and learned for the first time that a bell had been stolen from the Detroit church overnight. Smith knew that in all likelihood, this was the bell he had bought. He phoned the police, then phoned Channel 7, who dispatched a news crew to Algonac to photograph the bell. Channel 7 sent the photos to the Archdiocese of Detroit and to the parish; and it was confirmed that this was, indeed, the stolen bell.
Next week, the Archdiocese of Detroit will send a team to Algonac to retrieve the bell, which will be restored to its platform at Sweetest Heart of Mary. Smith is happy to return it; in fact, he said, even if this had not turned out to be the missing bell, he would have donated it to the church.
Thank you, Bill Smith, for your honesty. Interested readers can learn more about Smith’s historic Algonac business, Henry H. Smith and Company, at the company’s website.