PHOTO: Bell gifted by Emperor Nicholas II to the town of Châtellerault, 1897
For the last 124 years, a tiny French parish has held a secret with a little known connection to Russia’s last emperor and tsar Nicholas II.
In 1891, Russia placed a large order for rifles from the Manufacture de Châtellerault in France. The Manufacture d’Armes de Châtellerault was recognized throughout France for the manufacture of Lebels rifles. From 1891 to 1894, a Russian mission stayed in Châteauneuf, to supervise the manufacture of 500,000 rifles ordered by Emperor Alexander III.
When the Russian garrison came to take possession of the arms, they received a warm welcome by the town and especially, the parish priest of Saint-Jean-l’Évangéliste Church on rue Clément Jannequin in Châteauneuf, who opened the doors of his Catholic church so that a priest could perform an Orthodox Liturgy for their Russian guests.
PHOTO: The brass bell weighed 2600 kg and was covered with a layer of silver
Following Alexander III’s death in 1894, a memorial service was organized in the square in front of the church on 8th November 1894. In gratitude, for their kindness to the memory of his beloved father, Emperor Nicholas II gifted a beautifully ornate bell to the parish of Châteauneuf, a town situated on the Vienne River, located in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region of France.
The bronze bell was cast at the V.M. Orlov bell factory in Saint Petersburg, with a diameter of 1.75m, weighing more than 2600 kg and is covered with a layer of silver. It was decorated with four medallions representing two Russian Tsars, Alexander III and Nicholas II, and two French presidents, Sadi Carnot and Félix Faure, in honour of the Franco-Russian Alliance. The inscription in both French and Russian reads: “Ring for the peace and fraternity of all people”.
In 2012, the bell was listed as an historic monument, and thus eligible for funding for its restoration. The bell had been silent for several years, however, in 2017 a decision was made to make repairs. The work was carried out at the Bodet company, located in Maine-et-Loire at a cost of 15,000 euros. One specialist in clocks and bells remarked in admiration: “It is one of the most beautiful bells that I have seen”.
PHOTO: Saint-Jean-l’Évangéliste Church in Châteauneuf,
For 10 days, the workers assembled a wooden easel and installed an electronic system to ring the bell again. But unlike before, it was no longer used solely to indicate the time, it now rings during services: masses, weddings and baptisms. The rare Russian bell rang once again on 11th May 2017, and continues to ring to this day.
© Paul Gilbert. 24 December 2021