The Kodiak Bell should be returned to Alaska

The Kodiak Bell, created in 1796 for the first Orthodox church in the Western Hemisphere, now hangs in an old Spanish Catholic mission near Los Angeles.


On February 4, I wrote an article on an 18th century Russian bell that currently hangs in an old Roman Catholic mission in California. Thanks to Mr. Clifford Argue, I have since learned a great deal more about the Kodiak Bell, and I am convinced that this bell needs to be returned to the Orthodox Church in Alaska.

As most American Orthodox Christians know, in 1794, nine Russian monks arrived on Kodiak Island in Alaska and initiated the first Orthodox mission in the New World. The missionaries included the wonderworker St. Herman and the future hieromartyr St. Juvenaly, and their leader was Archimandrite Joasaph Bolotov, who would go on to become the first Orthodox bishop consecrated for service in the Americas. (Tragically, the newly-consecrated Bishop Joasaph drowned when his ship sank en route to Kodiak, and it would be nearly a half-century longer before a bishop, St. Innocent Veniaminov, would set foot in Alaska.)

Anyway, in 1796, the Kodiak Bell was cast for the first Orthodox church in Alaska — the Church of the Resurrection. The bell bore an inscription, which, translated into English, reads something like this: “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 Alexander Baranof.”

That bell now hangs at the historic Roman Catholic mission of San Fernando Rey de Espana, not far from Los Angeles. How it got there remains a mystery. One story — which I briefly related in my original article on the bell — is that the Russian nobleman Nikolay Rezanov exchanged the bell to the Spanish for food on an 1806 visit to California. The bell found its way to Mission San Fernando and was there as late as 1860. It was then removed and buried to protect it from vandals, was forgotten, and was finally rediscovered in 1920. It’s a colorful story, with a lot of romance, but it appears to be mostly speculation, with little hard evidence to back it up.

In the book The Mission Bells of California, by Marie T. Walsh (1934), there is a fascinating chapter entitled “Russian Bells in California.” The Kodiak Bell is featured prominently, and after relating the Rezanov story, Walsh offers this alternative theory:

Shortly after the transfer [of Alaska to United States control] two shipments of bells were made from Sitka to San Francisco. One of these shipments was consigned to Hutchinson & Hirsch on January 21, 1868, and the other to [Russian consul] Klinkofstrom on November 18, 1868. Also, in 1882, the three bells from the Kodiak church were sent down to be recast by a San Francisco company, but were substituted with other material. Reverend [Alexander] Kashevaroff says that he remembers ringing the 1796 bell as a boy for the church services and on big holidays, especially during Christmas and Easter, when the bells would be rung the whole day in honor of the feast. So taking this historian’s word for it, the Kodiak bell first saw California in 1882 and not in 1806 as has been so romantically suggested.

I plan to reprint the whole chapter at some point, as Walsh provides a lot of details and theories.

Anyway, so much for the basic history. In 1987, on the eve of the millenium of Russian Orthodoxy, OCA priest Fr. Andrew Harrison, then of St. Innocent Church in Tarzana, California, wrote to Pope John Paul II to ask that the Kodiak Bell be loaned to the Orthodox in Alaska. Roman Catholic Archbishop Roger Mahony of Los Angeles responded, granting permission for a 3-month loan in 1988. Most of the details were worked out, but for reasons that remain unclear, the loan never happened and the bell has remained at Mission San Fernando to this day.

That was 23 years ago. And while the idea of a three-month loan is nice, honestly, that bell belongs in Alaska, permanently. It is one of the few surviving artifacts from the original Kodiak Mission — from the original Orthodox temple in the Western Hemisphere. It should be, not loaned, but returned. Because, however it got down to a Roman Catholic mission in California, it is of comparatively little value to its present owners, in light of its extraordinary significance for the Orthodox Church.

This calls to mind two recent “returns,” both of which are relevant for our purposes. First, there was the celebrated 2004 return of relics by Pope John Paul II to the Ecumenical Patriarchate — relics of the great Fathers St. Gregory the Theologian and St. John Chrysostom. Here, the late Pope should serve as a model for the current owners of the Kodiak Bell, willing to return a precious relic to the Orthodox in a spirit of Christian friendship.

Even more recently, there was Harvard University’s 2008 return of 18 historic bells to Danilov Monastery in Russia. These bells had been donated to Harvard in 1930 by a philanthropist who saved them from destruction by the Communists, and they were ultimately returned in exchange for a new set of bells (donated by a Russian foundation). Here, too, we see a model for the Kodiak Bell situation: we Orthodox should raise the (certainly small) sum of money necessary to create a replacement bell, to give to Mission San Fernando in exchange for the Kodiak Bell.

In my view, this plan — for the Roman Catholics to return the Kodiak Bell in exchange for a high-quality replacement — is exactly the sort of “ecumenical” activity that has positive benefits all around. It would foster goodwill between the two groups, attract positive attention from outsiders, give the Orthodox an important relic from their past, and give the Roman Catholics a new artifact demonstrating our Christian brotherhood. This can happen, and should happen.

This article was written by Matthew Namee. Many thanks to Mr. Clifford Argue for his invaluable assistance.