The Bells of St. Mary is the title of a 1945 drama starring Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman and follows a priest and nun who team up to save their parish school from shutting down. At one point during the film, Crosby sings about the bells of St. Mary.
His song might as well have been about the bells of St. Mary Church in Mokena, which had already been ringing for decades by the time the movie came out. Today, the ringing continues, both at the current church and occasionally at the old church on Wolf Road.
Ringing Throughout History
Bells have tolled in the Catholic Church since at least the seventh century when Pope Sabinian approved their use. Similar to today, the large bells were rung to announce Masses and prayers such as the Angelus, prayed at 6 am, noon, and 6 pm.
Over time, bells began to announce weddings, funerals, and other events at the parish level. In an age long before watches and smartphones, villagers would rely on their parish bells as an alert system. For this reason, church builders constructed tall bell towers that could amplify the chimes over vast distances. Beyond being an alert system, bells were believed to drive out evil and bring joy to God.
German Catholic immigrants brought these traditions to Mokena in 1864 when they built St. Mary Church and its bell tower. Today, inside the St. Mary bell tower sits an old bell that was installed between 1867 and 1925, according to a Campanologist (bell expert) from St. Louis, MO. More research is needed to identify the exact age of the bell, but chances are it is more than 100 years old and, possibly, the original bell from the 1860s.
This old bell announced Masses and parish events regularly until the second St. Mary Church was built in 1955. Since there was no bell tower in the second church, there was no bell. Neither was a bell tower built for the third and current church, which held its first Mass in 1987.
The parishioners never forgot the original bell, however, and they longed to hear those joyous chimes at the new church. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, then-pastor Father James Fitzgerald acquired a second bell from a closed church. Unfortunately, this bell was never used due to poor sound quality, and the parish chose not to build a bell tower.
For Whom the Bells Toll
In 2002, tragedy struck the parish when a St. Mary School third grader named Emily McCabe passed away suddenly. Out of the grief arose a memorial that chimes to this day—the current digital bells of St. Mary were sponsored by the McCabe family to honor their precious daughter.
Father James Dvorscak, former pastor of St. Mary Mokena, wrote at the time, “With heartfelt gratitude and appreciation, and yet with tears of loss for such a sweet little girl, ‘the bells of St. Mary’s’ joyfully ring in memory of Emily McCabe. As we enjoy Emily’s music for years to come, may we remember to think of her often.”
The “Emily McCabe Memorial Carillon” was dedicated on All Saints Day in 2002. Completely digital, these bells feature eight different hour chimes, the Angelus, tolls for funerals and peals for weddings. In fact, more than 300 seasonal and patriotic hymns can be played. The bell speakers can best be seen from the upper parking lot looking above the parish hall area.
Ringing into the Future
The digital carillon continues to announce hours and Masses at St. Mary to this day. Recently, a setting was fixed that allows the bells to once again play a full range of hymns and melodies that haven’t been heard in the past few years. Parishioners should keep their ears open to hear some of these tunes throughout the day.
“As I walk to the church from the rectory, the mighty bells of St. Mary toll, and my heart soars!” exclaims Father Dindo Billote, pastor of St. Mary Mokena. “These beautiful bells represent a wonderful tradition of Catholic church bells being rung all across the world. You are reminded that God is present in the world, and church bells are calling people to worship at the celebration of the Holy Mass everywhere!”
Like the bells of old, the current bells can be heard for miles around town, especially on a quiet day or still evening, if only as a faint echo in the distance. The bells of St. Mary represent a sense of belonging for every parishioner who hears them calling across Mokena.