By Barb Arland-Fye
PARNELL – A twelve-hundred-pound solid brass bell that rang out for Masses and milestones during the 120 years of St. Joseph Parish’s existence has a new purpose in the St. Joseph Cemetery.
Sheltered inside a replica of the church’s bell tower, the bell peals for the faithfully departed as their loved ones say goodbye at St. Joseph Cemetery in Parnell, located in the rolling hills of Iowa County.
“The bell tower serves as a tribute to our founding Irish ancestors,” writes Eddie O’Brien in a letter to The Catholic Messenger explaining the project’s significance. “Our church had served our Parnell community so well over the years. There were times when every seat in the church was filled,” notes O’Brien, chairperson of St. Joseph Cemetery Committee.
He and others credit David Jennings for having the vision to preserve the church’s original bell, and building the memorial tower. “Not only did he have the vision, but he also had the craftsmanship skills to make it a reality,” O’Brien says. “There was a feeling of excitement when it was being built, and now there is a great sense of pride.”
Jennings built the bell tower in his shop and brought it to the cemetery site in four sections to be erected. He started working on the project shortly after the church was torn down about three years ago. “The church was gone. We had nothing left (but the bell). We figured if our grandparents could put up a church that would last 100 years we ought to be able to build something that would last another hundred years.”
Built in 1889, the church closed in 2009 because of declining membership, a shortage of priests and prohibitively expensive building repairs. Former parishioners had hoped to at least preserve the original bell tower, but the structure was rotten and couldn’t be saved, Jennings says.
“I just built a replica; it’s not 100 percent the same,” he adds, with modesty. The 10-foot-square replica with white vinyl siding stands about 16 feet from the ground to the foot of a Celtic cross, which is about 6 feet tall. Jennings saved and refurbished both the cross and one of four original shamrocks that graced the original church. The wooden cross, covered in tin and painted white, had to be rebuilt.
Inside the compact tower, the massive bell consumes the space it occupies and glows from the sun’s rays passing through the windows. An inscription on the bell reads: “St. Joseph’s Bell – Memorial of Mission, April 6, 1902.”
Jennings entrusted work on the bell to Max-Cast in Kalona. “The bell was a little dirty and corroded, basically in fine shape for its age,” said Steve Maxon, a founder of Max-Cast. “We sand blasted the yoke and the bell and we did a little wire brushing and sanding on the bell. There really wasn’t any restoration except cleaning and spiffing up.”
Mounted on a pedestal, the bell is attached to its original wheel, shaped like a captain’s wheel, which assists with the bell’s tolling. The captain’s wheel consists of about 60 pieces, which Jennings spread on the floor like a jigsaw puzzle and rebuilt. Catholics and non-Catholics worked on the project; all of them did it for their costs or for nothing, Jennings says.
Mary Jane O’Brien, sister of Eddie O’Brien, polished the bell by hand after it was installed in the bell tower last year. “Many of us were baptized and made our first Communion and confirmation at the Parnell church,” Mary Jane says. The bell tower “is a way of helping to keep the memory alive.”
“It will become a place of pilgrimage,” predicts Don Moeller, whose wife, Jerri Moeller, was born and raised in Parnell as a member of St. Joseph Parish. Family members, including her parents, are buried in the cemetery. So are the parents of Bishop Emeritus William Franklin, who was delighted to see the bell tower this past summer.
The bell was always heard by the people of the community, Jerri Moeller says. To hear it ring again and be visible again means a great deal to her. “The spirit is alive. When a church is gone from a community, it hurts the community. The church was an anchor for all of us,” she adds.
“The cemetery is the resting place for many of the fine people who attended St. Joseph’s all their lives,” adds her cousin, Eddie O’Brien. “Each (grave) stone tells a story about a family, about a little town, and how those people are connected to one another.… Even though the church is gone, it is not forgotten. The ringing of the bell reminds us all that there is much to celebrate here.”