Helen Butera grew up four blocks from St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church and remembers the mighty sound of the parish bells.
The church’s four bronze bells rang at weddings, tolled at funerals, clanged at noon and pealed before Masses and to signal milestones such as the end of World War II.
“It was powerful,” said Butera, who turns 99 this month, “like God was calling out to us.”
Those bells fell silent more than three decades ago because of damage at the historic Omaha church — which has roots as the city’s first cathedral — but now the parish is raising funds to bring them back to life.
The Rev. Damian Zuerlein, who took over as pastor last year, says the timing is right for repairing the bells at St. Frances Cabrini, which sits in Little Italy along the resurgent 10th Street corridor south of downtown.
Developers view the corridor as hot real estate, with the area drawing retail and residential development, including a row-house project that’s underway and an upscale apartment building.
Newcomers are drawn to Little Italy’s history and its neighborhood feel, along with the advantage of being close to downtown jobs and entertainment.
Along with Grace University and other institutions, the church plays an important role as a neighborhood anchor, said Arnold Breslow, president of the Old Market South Neighborhood Association.
The parish already has raised $20,000 toward repairing the bells, just a few thousand short of getting the job done. Ben Sunderlin, a bell maker from Virginia, traveled to Omaha this month to inspect them and provide an estimate.
The bells are mounted near the top of a four-story bell tower reached by climbing two sets of stairs and two ladders that require some flexibility to navigate.
Space is tight around the bells. The largest of the four is bigger than a refrigerator, and together the four weigh more than a ton. They’re mounted on crisscrossing cedar beams, and Sunderlin, a lean 28-year-old, looked a bit like a kid on a jungle gym as he checked them out.
He inspected the bells for cracks and examined the mounts and motors. He grabbed the metal strikers and manually rang the bells to see if they were in tune, gauging the sound using software on his laptop. Even though the bells are nearly 150 years old, he said they were in generally good shape and sounded fine overall.
In the mid-1980s the church stopped ringing the bells after a water main broke and flooded the soil under the church property, Zuerlein said.
The water caused shifts in the church’s foundation, which damaged the mount for the largest of the four bells, he said. The shifting also broke some of the thick wires that pull, with the help of electric motors, the strikers that ring the bells.
Zuerlein said repairs were likely deemed too expensive, so the bells have sat silent.
Instead, the parish installed speakers in the tower that play a recording of bells from a CD player, Zuerlein said. The church still plays the automated recording at noon and before Masses.
When Zuerlein took over as pastor, he asked church members about improvements they’d like to see, and many mentioned the bells.
Longtime parish member Betty Pistone hopes to hear them ringing again.
She has been a parish member since 1945, when her family moved into the neighborhood when she was a teenager. She raised her own family near the church and said the sound of the bells was part of the fabric of the neighborhood and a key piece of the parish’s identity.
“It was just part of what we were,’’ she said.
The recorded ringing is loud, she said, but the tone is different. The bells, she said, have a richer, deeper, truer sound.
Bells at churches have a history dating to the fifth century in Italy. Over the centuries church bells have played an important role, initially serving as timekeepers to mark the hour for work, prayer and events.
For some people, the sound of church bells is a reminder of God and the divine.
Mike Ferro, a member of the church council and a lifelong parishioner, remembers ringing the bells after funeral services when he was an altar boy in the early 1980s.
He said the bells are an important part of the life and history of the church, so ringing them again would mean a lot to the parish and serve as a symbol of its future.
“It really makes a statement that as a parish we are healthy and growing,’’ he said.
Zuerlein said the parish has about 300 registered families, although the list needs to be updated. He said attendance at weekend Masses ranges from 400 to 500 and has been rising.
The parish dates to 1856, when it was known as St. Mary and the congregation gathered at a church on Eighth Street between Harney and Howard Streets. It was the first Catholic church built in Omaha.
About a decade later the congregation moved into a new church a block away that was designated a cathedral and named in honor of St. Philomena.
The church relinquished its cathedral designation in the early 1900s when work began on St. Cecilia Cathedral.
The parish moved to its current location at 10th and William Streets in 1908, and the bells made the move as well. The parish was renamed in the 1950s for Frances Cabrini, the first naturalized U.S. citizen to be canonized, in 1946.
Last year, when parishioners began considering repairing the bells, the first step was to look them over. It had been years since anyone had ventured up there. Turned out that pigeons had made the tower their home.
The church hired a crew to remove the roughly foot and a half of pigeon poop that had accumulated, along with feathers and droppings that covered the bells. The workers reattached screens that had fallen from vents in the tower and given the birds an easy way in.
The church sought a rough estimate on bell repairs from an out-of-state company that serviced them years ago. The company provided an estimate of $25,000 based on its records and recent pictures of the bells, Zuerlein said.
The church began raising money and received a $10,000 donation from the Mammel Family Foundation in Omaha. The parish has raised an additional $10,000 from church members and the public.
Sunderlin estimated it will cost about $22,000 to repair the bells.
Zuerlein said the fundraising will continue and any money raised beyond what’s needed to repair the bells will be used to fix the exterior of the tower.
He hopes the bells can be repaired this spring and that soon after, maybe on a bright summer day, they will once again ring out strong and clear.
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