The conservation of the San Xavier Mission bells

Nancy Odegaard, Ron Harvey, Simon Belcher, Gina Watkinson, Susie Moreno, Timothy Lewis, and Luke Addington


This presentation addresses the condition and conservation treatment of the bells at Mission San Xavier which continue to be used by members of the Tohono O’odham tribal community. In general, we found that mission bells have often been overlooked within the scheme of historic preservation. Use of the bells at Mission San Xavier, founded in 1783, have created patterns of wear, damage, and metal surface alterations have impacted their tolling sounds. Hanging methods and repairs have also affected condition. With funding from the NEH, the project developed conservation treatments and maintenance protocols that would be compatible with bell function.

Mission bells were of critical importance throughout Spanish colonial churches. Historians have noted that tolling of bells regulated the entire day; calling the faithful to prayer, work and sleep. Franciscan authority over mission communities in the borderlands of America and Mexico has been referred to as ‘living under the bell’. Today, Mission San Xavier has three bell ringers, all members of the Tohono O’odham Nation, use rope pulls to regulate the clappers and the tolling of the bells calls the faithful of the village to religious holy days and feast days. The different tolling patterns also convey information about the age and sex of the departed for funerals.

In this project, conservation and maintenance procedures had be compatible with these bell functions. Detailed photo documentation, elemental analysis of the metals, and comparative study of the hanging mechanisms was necessary. Many Mission bells have genealogies or life histories, having been cast in one place and moved numerous times across the course of their life span. Some began their life in European foundries. (The Kings of Spain typically provided colonial Missions with vestments, ornaments and a mission bell). Others were crafted on the Mission site by friars using printed instruction manuals. Sometimes these craftsmen would put their name and the date the bell was cast, or the name of the Mission where the bell would hang. Bells could be consecrated through baptism and naming, thus creating an individual identity.

Conservation treatment for these bells had to be inclusive with the community bell ringers and the church. One bell, that is not rung, was used to develop a protocol that involved extensive examination and documentation, analysis of the metal composition and corrosion, a study of the sound frequency before and after treatment, appropriate cleaning materials and techniques based on testing, and the application of a coating suitable for the hot and dry southern Arizona desert climate based on accelerated aging studies. This information will assist in training conservators in the methods and theory as well as techniques for the conservation treatment of bells and the procedures for a maintenance program.

2021 | Virtual | Volume 28