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At long last, bells for St. Bernadette

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Like the angel who finally got his wings, Michael LeMay is finally getting his bells.

LeMay, who died in June, was the Northern Virginia architect who designed St. Bernadette Church in Springfield, where Bishop Michael F. Burbidge celebrated Mass Oct. 14 for the 40th anniversary of the church’s dedication in 1981. 

Bells have a way of helping us remember what we can so easily forget: the holy presence of God in our midst.” Bishop Michael F. Burbidge

After the Mass, parishioners followed Bishop Burbidge outside, where he blessed three newly installed bronze bells that hang on the long horizontal arm of the dramatic asymmetrical cross, the most prominent feature of the contemporary façade. The bells were central to the architect’s vision, but ended up being cut from the construction budget, to be added later. As decades passed and pastors rotated to new parishes, the plan to add bells was all but forgotten.

That is, until Father Donald J. Rooney came to St. Bernadette five years ago. Considering potential renovations, he reached out to the architect for a consultation. LeMay was in his 80s and retired, but was still active and living in the area, so he agreed to meet.

As Father Rooney tells it, when the architect arrived, he stood looking at the front of the church and asked where the bells were. “I asked him what he was talking about. He said ‘the bells, the bells — there are supposed to be bells hanging from the underside of that long left arm of the cross to soften the line. Otherwise, the whole thing doesn’t make sense.’ ” 

Father Rooney, an artist who ran an advertising and design firm before becoming a priest, admits he had sometimes wondered why the architect designed the façade as he did, but “suddenly, imagining the bells there, it did make sense.” 

The two became friends, and got together to talk about churches and architecture. LeMay, a leader in his field, earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from The Catholic University of America’s School of Architecture and Planning in Washington, and taught there in the early 1960s. After working with several firms, he established his own practice in 1974 and was a charter member of the Northern Virginia chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The firm he founded, now LeMay, Erickson, Willcox Architects, has designed more than 150 houses of worship around the region, including seven Catholic churches in the Arlington diocese.

ALTAR IS THE FOCUS

“He knew his liturgy,” said Father Rooney, adding that St. Bernadette’s contemporary, minimalist  style “really has grown on me. I think what they built here is quite striking, really — it is honest. The form is the function. A church’s architecture has to express the relevance of the church to the modern day — it is a modern building that can speak of what is sacred.” 

In the large fan-shaped interior of St. Bernadette, the floor slopes down stadium-style from the doors at the back of the church, and all the visual lines draw the eye toward the brightly lit altar. “There are no windows to detract from the focus. The altar is the focus,” Father Rooney said. 

While the altar is the focus of every church, this one is a massive 4,900-pound holy relic: the split natural wood altar where Pope John Paul II, now a saint, celebrated Mass on the Mall in Washington in October 1979. The concrete slab in the sanctuary had to be thickened and reinforced with steel to support it. (Objects that touched a saint while he or she was alive are considered second-degree relics.)

Those who build churches know budgets always get cut, Father Rooney said, but the addition of the bells will add a joyous new dimension. Erected as part of the Diocese of Richmond in 1959, St. Bernadette had no permanent church building for 22 years. The first priority was building St. Bernadette School, and then enlarging it. Then a convent was built for the Daughters of Wisdom, the sisters who ran the school for many years. Fundraising for a permanent church began after St. Bernadette became part of the newly created Arlington diocese in 1974.

HONORING THREE  MATRIARCHS 

The bells — donated by the Herrity and Burger families to honor three beloved family matriarchs — will be rung before Masses, “go crazy at the end of weddings,” toll solemnly for funerals and sound each day at noon and 6 p.m., the times of the Angelus prayer, said Father Rooney.

“Bells have a way of helping us remember what we can so easily forget: the holy presence of God in our midst,” added Bishop Burbidge before the blessing. “Who knows whose heart may be touched when they’re driving down Old Keene Mill Road past the church?” he added. “They may hear the bells saying to them, ‘Come on in!’ ”

Each bell has a distinctive “voice.” The largest, 29 inches in diameter and 500 pounds, is tuned to C sharp; the second is 24 inches and 255 pounds, and is tuned to E. The third, 20 inches and 145 pounds, is tuned to G sharp. They were cast at the Verdin Bell Foundry in Cincinnati, and are engraved with the names of Justine Margaret Herrity; her sister, Mary Elizabeth (Bette) Kennedy; and their mother, Maristella Gertrude Feustle. 

Justine, a St. Bernadette parishioner and member of the choir, was the wife of longtime Fairfax County Board of Supervisors chairman Jack Herrity, who died in 2006, and the mother of five including Pat Herrity, a current county supervisor, who attended St. Bernadette School. After the Mass, he posted photos of the bells on Twitter, a fitting tribute to his mother, who died in 2019. “I think of her every time I visit St. Bernadette’s, and it will be a special moment whenever the bells toll,” he tweeted. 

In addition to the names of the three women, the bells are engraved to commemorate “St. Bernadette Church, 2021,” “40th anniversary of St. Bernadette,” and with the hopeful words, “In Dedication for the End of the Pandemic, 2021.”

Other updates for the anniversary include a new choir platform and 12 new candle sconces with dedication crosses affixed to the walls of the church, to recall the anointing of the walls with sacred chrism during the dedication 40 years ago. 

But outside after the Mass, the focus was on the bells. 

Parishioners gathered in front of the church and on the steps, gazing up in delight and snapping photos as the bishop and pastor punched a remote control to activate the clappers, and the bells clanged for the first time. 

“They are so beautiful, and it is such a joy to hear them,” said parishioner Mary Beth Williams, lingering outside with her husband, Jerry, after the blessing. She said she always thought the asymmetrical cross looked awkward, but called the bells “a wonderful addition.” 

“Now it makes a little more sense,” Jerry Williams said. 



© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021