St. Mary Basilica, the mother church of Mississippi Catholicism is blessed with many beautiful treasures, the magnificent stained glass windows, carrara marble altars, beautiful statuary, frescos, plaques and much more. Parishioners and visitors alike have known the beauty of these treasures daily for years upon years. St. Mary Basilica possesses another beautiful treasure that is not visible to the casual eye, because it is located high above in the bell tower, seen by only a few individuals over the years, it is the magnificant Maria Alexandrina, the beautiful and ornate bell.
Photographs by Stephen Flowers assisted by Kate Stanley.
Bishop Chanche was able to obtain from a benefactor in Rome, Italy the beautiful bell which today calls to prayer and to devotion the faithful people of Natchez. The history of this bell is interesting. The Mississippi Free Trader on Wednesday, May 15, 1850, announced its arrival in Natchez as follows: "The Bell of St. Mary's Cathedral. This gift of the generous Prince Torlonia arrived on the steamer Natchez No. 3 on Monday morning, and will be elevated to its place in the tower of the Cathedral by Sunday next. On Sunday, May 26, it was solemnly blessed by the Bishop."
Let Bishop Chanche himself tell its story: "Trinity Sunday, I blessed the beautiful bell presented to me by Prince Alex. Torlonia, of Rome. This bell had reached the city the Monday before, on the steamer Natchez. It came to me free of all expense: such had been the directions of the Prince to the different merchants through whose hands it was to pass. I blessed it according to the ceremonial laid down in the Roman Pontifical, and called it Maria Alexandrina, in compliment to the donor and his lady. The bell is the work of Giovanni Lucenti; it is beautifully decorated, and weighs upwards of 3000 pounds. It is related that the night it was cast, about twelve o'clock the Prince left the company which he entertained, went with his wife and a few friends to the foundry; the lady cast a gold ring in the glowing, melting mass, and all knelt down, reciting the Litany of the Blessed Virgin and other prayers during the fusion.
The bell was suspended Monday, 27th. On the occasion I was assisted by Revs. J.M. Moricet, M.F. Grignon, Jno. A. Fierabras and Father Matthew, the celebrated Apostle of Temperance, and administered the pledge to many."
This bell has a diameter, at the base, of 40 inches. It is beautifully ornamented with excellent relief work and contains the following inscriptions:
In a band near the top of the bell:
Munificentia Principis Alexandri Torlonia Romae Anno Dni MDCCCIIL
In a band near the bottom of the bell:
Joanni Josepho Chanche Episcopo Natchetensi Primo
In a small ornamental design on one side of the bottom of the bell:
Giovanni Lucenti Fonditore Romano
Besides these inscriptions and the other ornamentation upon the bell, there is on the south side a relief of the Blessed Virgin, within a wreath supported by two cherubs; on the east side, a relief showing the coat of arms of Bishop Chanche; on the north side, a simple cross; and on the west side, a relief showing the Torlonia coat of arms.
A letter written to Bishop Chanche, who was evidently in Paris at the time, by Canon Raphael Bertinelli, the agent of the Bishop of Rome, under date of January 25, 1849, throws some further light upon the bell; it also gives us some other interesting side lights upon Bishop Chanche's activities in obtaining fittings for his Cathedral, and the kindness of many of his friends in Europe, the Holy Father himself showing a deep and personal interest in the affairs of Natchez.
Most Illustrious and Most Reverend Monsignor: If my letter before the last brought you news little favorable of the things of which you have charged me, with the present I have the honor of giving you more consoling news. The bell promised by Torlonia is already finished, and I can assure you that neither in all the City of Rome nor in all America could you see its equal. The other bells are left rough because, having to remain on high, fine work upon them is useless, for in the distance one does not distinguish them. Torlonia has wished that the bell be not only highly polished as to material, but also he has wished that all the figures be finished. The good Prince himself has taken all care that the necessary work be perfect. The evening that they were to mould the bell he wished to be there. It was midnight—he had a party at his house—he quitted the party and went out with his wife and some other gentleman, and all together they were at the moulding of he bell. During the time of the melting it is the custom to say some prayers. The Prince upon his knees, with his wife, began the litany of the Blessed Virgin, with other prayers, during all the time that the moulding lasted, which moulding succeeded to perfection. In the days following he has been there insisting always that the work be conducted with the greatest perfection. I have also been there many times, and lately that it has been finished can assure you that it is truly very well executed and that it has a sound very loud and very sweet.
As for the choice of marble, I am not of the opinion that we should put much alabaster, because it is a marble which with time changes its beauty and becomes very ugly. But for this leave the matter to me; I assure you that in my affairs I never stop with the mediocre but I look always to the best and I hope to be able to unite in this altar the choice of the best marbles of St. Paul and of the others also which are not there. I assure you that if I can succeed in finding money you will have an altar more beautiful than you can expect. I will seek also to make the tribune and the tabernacle in metal, and the place for the exposition also you will find beautiful. But it requires time, because it is necessary to find also artists who either for friendship or for charity will do it for me more economically.
Have the goodness to tell me when the first shipment that was sent in the month of October reaches you. Remember to say a prayer for me and for my family. Your very humble servant, Raphael Canon Bertinelli 25th of January, 1849
From Cradle Days of St. Mary's at Natchez, 1798 – 1888 By Most Rev. R.O. Gerow, M.A., S.T.D. Bishop of Natchez
Mike Murphy presents a Natchez History Minute about the bell of St. Mary Basilica that arrived in Natchez in May, 1850. The May 15th edition of the Mississippi Free Trader reported that the bell had arrived on the Natchez No. 3 and would soon be "elevated into its position in the tower." Published on May 14, 2016… View video