Woman seeks to save Irish American parish's historic bells

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. (AP) — She did it once, but can she do it again?

In late 2017, Suzanne Sullivan of Fairhaven, a longtime parishioner at St. Lawrence Martyr Church, led a successful effort to save the historic bells of the first Irish American parish in New Bedford. She raised $75,000 in just 52 days after the former pastor and parish council of the church decided to sell the bells, which once signaled the return of fishing vessels to the city and played carols at Christmas time.

Sullivan, who was baptized at the church, sued the Fall River Diocese in 2017 claiming parishioners raised some $367,000 for the specific purpose of saving the bells and restoring the bell tower but the money was commingled with general funds.

The parish, with an aging church structure, was in debt in 2014 and then-pastor, Rev. Robert Powell, recommended the bells be sold because it would have cost $85,000 to repair them. The suit was dismissed in January 2018, but that was also the same month Sullivan raised enough money to buy the bells back from the company that had purchased them from the parish.

Now that company, the Verdin Bell Co. in Cincinnati, Ohio, is storing the bells without cost while Sullivan needs to raise $220,000 to realize her plan to refurbish the chimes and install them in a newly constructed bell tower at Clasky Common Park, just a stone's throw from St. Lawrence.

In Sullivan's eyes, the project will not be done until the St. Lawrence bells are ringing. "We've got them. Do we want to hear them ring or sit in a warehouse? The bells were meant to ring," she said. "We're not finished yet. We have to finish the project. It's not done yet."

In order for the bells to work again, they need to be cleaned, tuned and installed with new clappers. The parish said it had sold them to Verdin for $32,250, plus the$40,000 cost of removing them from the church bell tower. Sullivan bought the bells back at cost from Verdin and has an agreement to restore them.

Sullivan and Verdin have structured the costs of the repairs. She will pay the company $110,000 to start the work. Then she will pay another $110,000 as Verdin builds a 41-foot tower and installs the refurbished bells into the structure. Verdin says it will take six months to construct the tower. The bells will be located at Clasky Common Park near the basketball court, after the Park Board approved the site.

But this second round of fundraising has been slow — so far Sullivan has only raised about $22,000.

She said people need to understand the history and the importance of the bells, which even until a few years ago, were well known for marking the times of day in downtown New Bedford as they rang on the hour and multiple times for the Catholic prayer, the Angelus, at 6 a.m., noontime and 6 p.m.

Sullivan theorized that people don't feel a sense of urgency since the St. Lawrence bells are now out of harm's way. She said she had hoped the project might be done by the end of this year, but that is not happening. Her new target date is next Memorial Day when she hopes the bells will be playing patriotic songs as the city's Memorial Day Parade winds down Parker Street and enters the park.

She is focused on raising the money through individual donations, public and private grants and the sale of memorial bricks and concerts, Sullivan said. The Park Board has approved a memorial walkway leading up to the tower and Sullivan is planning to sell the bricks for $100 each. People can help by sending a donation to the Save The Bells Inc., New Bedford Credit Union, 1150 Purchase St., New Bedford, Ma., 02740.

"With a brick you get something that will be there forever," she said. "I'm also looking into some type of concert. I'm not sure of the venue. Everything adds up."

Mayor Jon Mitchell, who has a long connection with St. Lawrence Martyr Church, said he supports the project and encourages people to donate, if they have the resources. He is a parishioner and he, his father and his three children were all baptized there.

"Suzanne has done heroic work in leading the charge to save the bells. Cities are built by people who persevere through sheer determination to make things happen," he said.

The bells are part of the church and New Bedford's history, Mitchell said. "This is the kind of cause and Suzanne is the kind of person who we should all rally behind."

Bob Verdin, chief executive officer of the Verdin Bell Co., said he believes the bell tower will be "awesome" and a nice addition for the area with the park decorated for the holidays and the bells playing Christmas music and patriotic songs on Memorial Day and Veterans Day.

He said most of Verdin's customers are non-profits and many of their projects are funded through fundraising. He has confidence in Sullivan's ability to raise the $220,000, he said, because she managed to raise $75,000 in less than two months. "That whole thing was her doing."

Verdin said Sullivan has no deadline to raise the money and Verdin is not charging her for storage. "We want to work with her," he said.

In addition to having the mayor's backing and Verdin's patience, Sullivan has won support from some of the Clasky Common Park neighbors after informing them about the project at a meeting with about 20 of them.

Sullivan went door-to-door to homes on the side streets around the park distributing flyers about the meeting, she said. The personalized approach gave her a chance to speak with neighbors directly.

"The neighbors all thought it would be a good idea," she said. "They just wanted to know if it (the bells) would be loud."

Robert Simmons, who lives near the park, said he supports the project. The bells won't be ringing at night, he noted. "It won't be any more noisy than kids running around. I kind of like the sound of church bells," he said.

Giselle Guilbert lived near the park for 20 years before moving to Florida and has since moved back and lived in the neighborhood the last six years. She said she is "very supportive" and wants to help Sullivan with fundraising.

She grew up listening to the bells when they were in the bell tower at St. Lawrence Martyr. "I could not sleep until I heard the bells. I have literally heard the bells all my life," she said.

Online: https://bit.ly/2Z0plw4

___

Information from: The (New Bedford, Mass.) Standard-Times, http://www.southcoasttoday.com