AUBURN — “The power of the bells” launched a $12,000 civic fundraising drive Saturday aimed at preserving and displaying four historic bells from New Auburn’s St. Louis Church.

“We can say we did this as a community,” said Al Manoian, Auburn economic development specialist, who has led the bell preservation effort since the church closed and the bells were removed last fall.

“The power of the bells brings us closer together,” he said.

The first public unveiling and exhibition of the bells took place shortly before noon Saturday at the Cote Corp. crane and rigging services warehouse on Hotel Road. An audience numbering close to 200 celebrated the event with music, remarks from local dignitaries and conversation among former parishioners. Many of the attendees had family ties to the church throughout the nearly 100 years the bells rang from the tower.

For Rosaire Lafontaine, who was born in 1920 and has strong memories of the church since early childhood, the event held special meaning.

“I used to ring those bells,” the 93-year-old, white-bearded gentleman said, as his arms moved as if pulling on the bells’ rope.

“It was my whole life, St. Louis Church and New Auburn, New Auburn, New Auburn!” Lafontaine exclaimed. He also was founder of the St. Louis Credit Union.

Two sisters who were confirmed and married at St. Louis sang at Saturday’s event with a vocal group called “Les Troubadours.” Irene Mercier, 83, recalled many happy times when she and her sister, Helen Sylvain, and two other siblings lived in New Auburn. The sisters sang in the church’s children’s choir.

“The Bells of the Village” was the song presented Saturday by the eight singers of “Les Troubadours.” They sang in French, and many voices joined in from the audience.

Manoian called the St. Louis bells “a national treasure.” He said it is imperative that these valuable “heritage assets” remain in Auburn. In his brief historical narrative, Manoian noted the extraordinary circumstances in which a small Auburn church commissioned casting of the bells at a world-class French foundry in 1915 when the battles of World War I were enveloping Europe.

He pointed out the extensive ornamentation on each bell, including several Latin inscriptions that need to be translated, maybe by a local student, he suggested.

“These are not only bells. These are works of art,” Manoian said. “Many people heard their voices, but they had not seen the faces until now.”

Auburn Mayor Jonathan LaBonté, a lifelong member of St. Louis Church, spoke about the bells’ importance to the city. Leroy Walker, councilor from Auburn’s Ward 5, which includes New Auburn, emphasized the neighborhood significance of the bells.

As dozens of former members of the church were called to stand behind the bells, Manoian removed blue drapes from each as he related details about it.

The two largest bells, each standing between 2 and 3 feet tall, were donated by the Provost family. The smallest, decorated with a holly design, has become known as “the Christmas bell,” he said.

The fourth bell, a large one, was donated many years ago by the Dupont family. Several members of that family representing three generations stood behind it for the unveiling.

Removal of the bells by the Cote Corp. last fall revealed somewhat of a mystery on one of them, Manoian said. The four metal hangers at the top were found to have six faces, each only a couple of inches in diameter, cast into the metal.

“Who are those six people?” he asked. “Maybe more research will tell us.”

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland owns the bells; a successful fundraising effort will allow Auburn to buy them. Museum L-A has been designated as the fund account holder. Donations can be made through Museum L-A, and early donors will receive special historical publications relating to the bells.

Also participating in the event were members of the Dirigo Rising Stars Fiddle Ensemble which included two fiddlers ages 11 and 13.

At the close of the program, the musicians assembled behind the bells and played music for more singing and dancing to French tunes.

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