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St. Mary’s bells will toll again, for thee ... and thee

The original bells at St. Mary’s Assumption Church in the Irish Channel in New Orleans will soon toll again in all their glory, thanks to the near completion of the “Don’t Let the Tower Tumble” bell tower restoration campaign.

Since the campaign to restore the church bell tower gained full force in 2013, approximately $900,000 has been raised to restore the tower.

Donations came from former students, parishioners, those who were wed at the church, people with an interest in historic preservation and even foundations. The church is designated a National Historic Landmark.

“We discovered that there are a lot of people in New Orleans who have a love for the parish and especially for that church because of the connection they’ve had over the years,” said Redemptorist Father Richard Thibodeau, pastor of St. Alphonsus Parish of which St. Mary’s Assumption is the filial church. (The parish also includes St. Alphonsus Church across the street and St. Mary’s Chapel on Jackson Avenue.) “They remember some significant event in their life and were willing to contribute.”

Donations of all sizes
The smallest donation was 25 cents; the largest was an anonymous donor who agreed to match, “dollar-for-dollar,” the donations made to the effort in October 2013.

“In that month, parishioners donated $63,000,” Father Thibodeau said. The interesting detail about the $126,000 was that the donor had received a windfall and made a promise to God to tithe 10 percent to the church, he said. “It happened to be the exact amount of the money raised. Sometimes, these strange and wonderful things happen. It was a nice boost.”

The tower, built with the church in 1858, had deteriorated over time. Bricks were coming loose, mortar was disintegrating and open louvers at the top of the tower caused rot to an interior galvanized roof (that originally caught condensation that ran down the tower), causing water to enter the church during heavy rainstorms, Father Thibodeau said.

The tower issue was something he noticed upon his arrival to the parish in the fall of 2011, and something he wanted to address before it caused interior church damage. When damage was assessed, much needed to be repaired. The clocks on all four sides of the tower had wooden faces that had decayed; the original bells – named Pius and Gabriel – were silenced many years prior and replaced with a haphazard automated bell system; and the original cross atop the tower had been heavily damaged by a lightning strike approximately five years ago.

“If something hadn’t been done, I can’t imagine what could have happened,” Father Thibodeau said.

Roof Tech of Harvey, a company whom the parish has used to repair other buildings on campus, won the bid to completely restore the tower. Roof Tech “tuck-pointed” the lake brick and replaced broken brick to structurally repair the tower, said architect Robert Cangelosi, president of Koch and Wilson Architects, which has had a long-standing relationship with St. Alphonsus since Hurricane Betsy.

In addition to the tower brick work, Roof Tech updated the lightning protection; added a membrane inside the towers along with batten at the top and bottom of the open louvers to reduce space for rain to get inside the tower; stripped the lead-coated copper dome top, sealed and repainted it; repaired metal tower shutters; and replaced the wooden clock faces with fiberglass as well as reworked the clock mechanisms.

The clocks will be functional when the dome is completed, Father Thibodeau said.

Nearing an end
The first sign of near completion came the Saturday before Christmas when the new, gold-leafed cross – a replica of the original – was raised.

“People are excited about this,” Father Thibodeau said. “All of this is duplicated to the original.”

With the bid for the work coming in under estimate and Roof Tech donating hundreds of thousands of dollars of work to the project, Father Thibodeau was able to create a wish-list for other repairs. The termite-eaten church doors were restored; and a new automated bell system was added. And, the parish – only a block from Magazine Street – hopes to add exterior spotlights to shine on the tower at night to give it “a little more prominence so people can see us,” Father Thibodeau said.

“With a building built in the 1850s, there’s never a lack of things,” he said, pointing to the 1861 organ having issues and a boiler that just died. Father Thibodeau also would like to replace lighting in the interior vaults of the church and professionally dust wood statues.

“It’s a National Shrine of Blessed Francis Seelos, and we have a lot of visitors who come to spend time with him,” he said. “So, the church is a drawing point for many people for many different reasons.”

Father Thibodeau called the church a neighborhood anchor, a symbol of hope.

“The church was built in 1858, so it’s been kind of a symbol of the neighborhood which has gone through good times and bad times,” Father Thibodeau said. “The fact that the tower is being restored is a witness to the neighborhood that there is life here.”

To find out more about the tower, visit Donations can be sent to St. Alphonsus Parish/St. Mary’s Assumption Church “Save the Tower Restoration Fund,” 2030 Constance Street New Orleans, LA 70130.
Christine Bordelon can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

➤ What: Mass and blessing of the renovated bell tower at St. Mary’s Assumption Church, 2030 Constance St., New Orleans.
➤ When: March 1, 10:30 a.m. Mass, followed by a blessing with Archbishop Gregory Aymond and a reception.
➤ Plans: Attendees will be given small bells to ring in advance
    of the original bells returning to service.

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