It has been a long time since the original bell cast for St. Mary of the Annunciation has been used to call parishioners to the country church on Erhart Road near Mundelein.
"That's a good question. I'm going to guess it's got to be at least 50 years ago," Pastor Ron Lewinski said.
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It was likely a structural issue with the tower at what is now known as the old church that prompted leaders to take it down. For decades, it has been inoperable and housed in a cupola-type structure near the entrance of the church.
"I'm not even sure we know the last time it rang," said Howard Fischer, director of parish operation.
No longer will the bell, cast in St. Louis in 1867, be merely kept as a curiosity. Restored and polished to its original golden sheen, the bell will be put back into service to mark the beginning of a year of celebration for the church's 150th anniversary.
On Oct. 12, Auxiliary Bishop George Rassas will lead the celebration with a blessing and dedication of the bell -- along with three new ones -- that were installed Wednesday on a 40-foot steel tower outside the new church just down the road from the original.
Plans for the new church, which opened in 2002, initially called for a bell tower as part of the structure. But the construction budget was trimmed and with it plans for a structure for the original bell.
"It kind of broke my heart we couldn't do it at the time," said Lewinski, who has been pastor at St. Mary of the Annunciation the past 17 years.
He said he has spoken often of somehow using the original bell again and even had it evaluated a few years ago.
"They told me then it was worth $25,000 and it was just sitting out there," he said.
Word reached a parishioner, who decided to donate the funds needed to make it happen. The donor wishes to remain low key and the church would only reveal that the donation given was sizable.
"To begin the next 150 years, to be able to restore something from our past is a wonderful tribute, really, to those who came before us," Lewinski said.
The church was built during the Civil War near what is now Route 176 and Fremont Center Road.
The Fremont Center parish was a mission church, with Mass celebrated once a month, and the earliest records date to 1864.
The parish relocated in 1889, and a new church, now a familiar landmark on what remains a bucolic country landscape, is on Erhart Road just west of Route 60.
The parish also operates a school and cemetery on its 57 acres.
Bells, Lewinski explained, were used to alert parishioners that a service was about to start and were also a reminder to stop and reflect. The chime also creates a mood, offering something words can't express, he added.
"They'd hear the bells ring across the fields and say, 'It's time to get going,'" he said. "It's not just window dressing. It has a real deep significance."
The tower was built and the new bells ranging in diameter from 24 inches to 37 inches were cast by Verdin Bells & Clocks in Cincinnati.
The bronze bells weigh 250, 500, and 990 pounds respectively. At 700 pounds, the restored original sits below those three and will be the only bell to actually swing, the chime made by a clapper weighing 50 or more pounds.
When operational, they will be programmed to ring five minutes before Masses on weekdays and Sundays -- at noon, 6 and 9 p.m. -- and, at weddings and funerals.
Though they will be tested in advance, the first public chime of the bells won't be until the blessing Oct. 12.
"It will sound the same today as 150 years ago when it was cast," predicted Steve Doerger, a sales representative from Verdin. "The tone doesn't change over time."