AUBURN — It wasn’t one big donation that helped the city of Auburn save the old St. Louis Parish bells, but many small ones.
“We now control the bells,” Mayor Jonathan LaBonte told a small crowd Tuesday afternoon on a New Auburn street corner.
“They now belong to the community and we can set their destiny,” LaBonte said. “There is no one else that can influence that. We don’t have to fear that they are going to get crated up and shipped to Cincinnati. They are in New Auburn for good.”
LaBonte joined other city officials and New Auburn residents and business owners to announce that they had raised the $12,000 needed to buy four historic bells from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland. They were the tower bells of New Auburn’s St. Louis Parish, which was decommissioned in 2012. The diocese agreed to sell the bells to the city and gave them until Dec. 27 to raise the money.
Members of the New Auburn community stepped forward, running fundraising events and selling paper and plastic bells to raise the money.
It worked, and LaBonte said a check was on its way Tuesday to the diocese.
Now attention turns to creating a heritage monument, likely in New Auburn, to house the bells permanently.
“What’s next? Well, we raised this money with nickels and dimes, $5s and $10s,” LaBonte said. “That’s how you build momentum and how I think we are going to find other people who want to join us in this effort.”
Since Tuesday’s announcement was about the effort to buy the bells, LaBonte asked residents to talk about why they mattered.
Sue Patneaude of Western Avenue in Auburn said the Franco-American heritage spoke to her. “It was just so important to me all of a sudden that I could not pass it up,” she said.
Elaine Biron, owner of Roy’s Beauty Shop at 48 Third St., sold paper bells out of her store to help raise money.
“That church has meant a lot, and my family for three generations has been brought up there,” she said. “Everyone has done their first communions, their baptisms, their confirmations and gotten married there. Those bells rang in my heart after they were taken down, and I pray to God they will be up somewhere that everybody can hear them.”
The bells have been stored at Cote Crane’s Auburn warehouse for the past year, ever since they were removed from their home of 98 years, New Auburn’s St. Louis church.
The four bells were cast in 1915 at a world-famous foundry in Annecy, France, the Paccard Bell Foundry. Each is marked with Latin inscriptions, detailing for whom they were cast and the date and location of the church.
Two were built to commemorate the lives of Auburn businessman and alderman Pierre Provost and his family. A third commemorated longtime New Auburn baker Phillipe DuPont; and the fourth, Parish priest Henri Gory.
Amid the support to buy the bells, Bob Poisson said he was against paying for them. Although he now lives in Lewiston, he was brought up in New Auburn and remembered the bells.
“I don’t agree with you people,” he said. “I don’t think we should pay a cent for those bells. I don’t know who has that check, but I hope they don’t give it to anybody. There is no reason in this world that those bells don’t belong to the people. There were two groups from this community that paid for those, and then a priest gave the other bell. So who do they really belong to?”