18th century Russian bell in California
Yesterday, Isa Almisry made a great comment full of fascinating links and references. One of the most intriguing is this one, on a Russian bell housed at the Mission of San Fernando el Rey de Espana, located 40 miles from San Pedro (where St. Peter the Aleut was reportedly captured):
A hundred-pound bell was unearthed in an orange grove near the Mission in 1920. It carried the following inscription (translated from Russian): “In the Year 1796, in the month of January, this bell was cast on the Island of Kodiak by the blessing of Archimandrite Joaseph, during the sojourn of Alexsandr Baranov.” It is not known how this Russian Orthodox artifact from Kodiak, Alaska made its way to a Catholic mission in Southern California.
Another reference presents a theory about how the bell made it to the Roman Catholic mission:
A bell hangs in the belfry of the church. Another bell, weighing 100 pounds and dated to 1796, bears inscriptions for both Mission San Fernando and a Russian Orthodox Church official of the island of Kodiak, Alaska. It is believed by some that the bell originated with Nikolay Petrovich Rezanov’s 1806 Russian trading expedition to Alta California.
I did some further digging, which turned up this note (and the accompanying photo) from the book Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana, by Jacqueline Ching: “A Russian count traded it for food in San Francisco, and from there it went to Mission San Fernando.” According to Ching, the bell went missing sometime before 1860, and wasn’t rediscovered until 1920. In addition to the Russian inscription, “DE Sn FERNO” was hammered into the surface.
So who was this “Russian count,” Nikolay Rezanov? According to his Wikipedia page, he lived quite a life. He was a statesman (serving as Russian ambassador to Japan), an explorer (circumnavigating the globe), and a scholar (member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences). But he is most famous for his role in founding the great Russian-American Company, the state-sponsored monopoly that ruled Alaska in the 19th century.
In 1806, he sailed from Sitka (then called New Archangel) to Spanish California. Apparently, the bell in question was on board his ship, although I can’t imagine why. Caught in a storm, he was forced to stop at San Francisco, where he fell in love with the daughter of a high-ranking Spanish official. In part because of this relationship, Rezanov negotiated a treaty between Russia and Spain regarding their claims in America, but on his way back to St. Petersburg to present it to the Tsar, Rezanov took ill and died in Siberia. Click here to see a website dedicated to preserving Rezanov’s memory.
None of this explains how a bell cast on Kodiak in 1796 made it onto a ship bound for California ten years later. The bell itself was probably the first Orthodox church bell made in the Western Hemisphere. For that matter, it may have been the first Orthodox bell in America, period, regardless of where it was originally made. It’s a rare artifact from the original Kodiak Mission, and it’s sitting in a Roman Catholic church in California, unknown (as far as I can tell) to virtually all Orthodox Christians despite its historical significance. I, for one, would love to visit that church and see the bell for myself. If anyone learns more about it, please let us know.
This article was written by Matthew Namee.
- Group photo from the 1910 Convention of the Russian Orthodox Catholic Mutual Aid Society
- Herman, A Wilderness Saint: From Sarov, Russia to Kodiak, Alaska
- St Raphael Hawaweeny & Spanish language Orthodoxy in the Americas
- May 1964: A Radical Change in the History of the Russian Church Abroad
- St. Innocent’s first homily as Metropolitan of Moscow
- Film on Yup’ik Orthodox of Alaska in development
- This week in American Orthodox history (May 14-20)
- This week in American Orthodox history (May 7-13)
- Churches on wheels: then and now
- This week in American Orthodox history (April 30-May 6)