By Kelly Moore, Central Pacific Province
I mourn the Mother;
I call the daughters.
Remember, sisters. Remember, sisters.
Remember your roots.
Keep them deep in God,
The ground of your being.
-Sister Jean Paul Zagorski
(Read during the rededication and blessing of the bell, Carolus, at Elm Grove, Wisconsin, on June 13, 1996)
Bells mark the passage of time, serve as a call for assistance or commemorate an important occasion. For the School Sisters of Notre Dame located in the Milwaukee area, three special bells also serve as a link to their rich and vibrant past.
These three bells are known as St. Ignatius, St. Catherine and Carolus. All were originally housed at the motherhouse that was once located on Milwaukee Street in downtown Milwaukee. The motherhouse was the first American motherhouse, established by Mother Caroline Friess in 1850, and it encompassed an entire city block. The motherhouse featured beautiful interiors decorated in European hardwoods, elaborate marbles, stained glass and wrought iron. Goldfish-filled fountains, storybook gardens and stone grottos marked the motherhouse grounds. For half a century, the Milwaukee motherhouse was the largest building in the city and served as a landmark for those travelling the Milwaukee River.
The St. Ignatius bell was cast in St. Louis in 1863, and is one of the oldest bells in Milwaukee. A highly decorative border and a cartouche of a crucifix, demonstrating its connection with the Roman Catholic faith, highlight this bell. The St. Catherine bell was cast by Milwaukee’s Centennial Bell Foundry in 1883, and features a simplified design. Each bell weighs approximately 640 pounds. Also created by the Centennial Bell Foundry was the third bell, Carolus. This bell was cast in 1892, and is inscribed with the words “Carolus” in one circle, “Matrem plango, filias voco” (The mother I mourn, the daughters I call) in a second circle, and “A.D. 1892” in a third. This bell rang for the first time at Mother Caroline’s death on July 22, 1892.
St. Ignatius and St. Catherine were left at the Milwaukee motherhouse when the sisters moved in 1957 to Notre Dame of the Lake in Mequon, Wisconsin. The motherhouse was demolished in 1959, and the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee took over the property - and the bells - in 1960. An affordable senior housing building containing 120 apartments took the motherhouse's place, but the two bells remained on the site, housed in a shelter made from materials taken from the demolished motherhouse.
Carolus hung in the tower of the Adoration Chapel at the Milwaukee motherhouse, but moved with the sisters to Notre Dame of the Lake. When the sisters moved to the Marshall Street site in Milwaukee in 1983, Carolus moved as well. The bell moved to Notre Dame of Elm Grove in 1996, as a climax to the site’s renovation, and was installed in a bell tower that was a gift from the sisters of the Bavarian Province. A special ceremony was held to rededicate and bless the bell and bell tower. Today, the bell’s clapper is operated by a computer and can be programmed to strike at varying tempos, signifying different events. Since 2001, Carolus has been rung as part of the “For Whom the Bell Tolls” ministry, marking when a person is executed in the U.S. and calling for an end to the death penalty.
Meanwhile, time and weather had not been kind to St. Ignatius and St. Catherine; they were badly corroded and in need of restoration. Early in 2018, The Bells of Milwaukee, Inc., a non-profit organization committed to preserving Milwaukee’s bell culture, began a project to restore the two bells. They called upon Lee Manufacturing Company, a Wisconsin firm specializing in bell restoration, to refurbish the inside and outside of the bells, tune them, and build and install new clappers. The Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee contributed the labor and materials for bell removal and return, along with the belfry that houses the bells. Funding for the project was provided by grants by the Argosy Foundation, The City of Milwaukee Arts Board, Herbert H. Kohl Philanthropies, Inc., John Shannon and Jan Serr.
St. Ignatius and St. Catherine were dedicated and blessed in a ceremony that took place on July 11, 2018. Sisters from the Milwaukee area participated in the event by singing a traditional blessing and formally ringing the bells for the first time since 1959. St. Ignatius and St. Catherine will ring with other bells in the Milwaukee area at midnight on New Year’s Eve.
St. Ignatius, St. Catherine and Carolus rang for many years, marking the hours, calling sisters to prayer and providing structure to daily life. All three bells now peal again and serve as a testament to the legacy of the School Sisters of Notre Dame and sisters' contributions to Milwaukee's rich and diverse history.