The Bells of Christmas

Countless types of bells may be found in all parts of the world. There are church and temple bells, doorbells, fire engine bells, clock bells, ships bells and carillon bells. History records that bells were among the first metallic items to be fashioned by our early ancestors.

It is believed that bells have been used by Christians as a call to worship since about 400 AD. Down the centuries church bells have summoned us, warned us of danger, and struck notes of jubilation in our lives. Famous bells have rung, pealed, and tolled events of significance from royal weddings to state funerals to armistice announcements.

Readers whose memories go back to the 1920s, 30s and 40s will recall that no rural schoolteacher’s desk was complete without a large hand bell. Many will also remember the sound of sleigh or harness bells on a crisp winter evening. So distinctive was the resonance of these bells that passersby could easily be identified by their sound.

Nostalgia aside, it is at this season of the year that the sound of bells takes on added meaning. Their ringing also prompts the question: When did Christmas bells first peal over the Tantramar marshlands?

In all probability it was on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 1722 when the solitary bell of the little Church of Sainte-Anne at Beaubassin rang out across snow covered dykelands. Erected through the initiative of the Abbé René-Charles de Breslay (1658–1755) this church was used until 1750 when it was destroyed by a British expeditionary force. It was to be replaced by the larger Church of St. Louis located on the west side of Beausejour Ridge and built under the direction of Abbé Jean-Louis LeLoutre (1709–72).

Its bronze bell, now on exhibit at the Fort Beausejour Museum was cast at La Fonderie de la Marine, Fonderie Royale, Rochefort, France. An inscription on the side bears the name of the maker and date:


According to historian Dr John Clarence Webster (1863–1950) this bell has had a long and checkered history. No records are available to tell us of its use from the date of casting until it arrived at Fort Beausejour to grace the new church. The building took eighteen months to construct and Abbé LeLoutre was able to gather the best carpenters and artisans in the colony to finish the project.

Completed just prior to the siege of Fort Beausejour in 1755 it was burned on LeLoutre’s personal orders. Confirmation is provided in his autobiographical account written in the third person: As soon as he saw the English (who were besieging the fort) near his church which was so fine and had cost so much, he gave the order to his people to set it on fire. (5 June 1755)

Further verification may be found in the journal entry of the same date by New Englander Captain Abijah Willard (1724–89), encamped nearby at what is today Mount Whatley. This night about ten o’clock we saw a great light in the west which was the French setting fire to their buildings around the Fort.

For the next forty years the precise location of the bell is not known. Tradition has it that the bell was taken from the flaming church; and then buried, only to be unearthed in the 1790s. It next appears, about 1796, in the belfry of the first St Mark’s Anglican Church, Mount Whatley. Later, the historic bell was transferred to a new building.

Here it remained until 1936 when Dr John Clarence Webster, the region’s greatest historian (slated to be the subject of a future Flashback), enters the story. By this time, he had succeeded in rescuing the area around the ruins of historic Fort Beausejour. Largely through Webster’s efforts, the grounds were designated as a national historic park in 1926.

Now a building to house artifacts was underway and Webster decided to donate his own impressive historical collection to the new museum. As a centerpiece the congregation of St Mark’s was convinced to donate the bell on condition that it never be removed from the fort.

Historical significance aside, are you ready to listen to the Bells of Christmas? If you are, then you will hear them ring out a proclamation that life should not be obsessed with material wealth. For some sixteen hundred years the Bells of Christmas have struck this universal chord; reminding us that true happiness lies more in giving than in receiving.

May we heed their message, as in centuries past the Christmas bells peal, once again, across the marshlands.