St Vincent’s Convent bell – then and nowPrint
Many members of the Sisters of Charity community will be familiar with the very large bronze bell which once hung at the original St Vincent’s Convent at Potts Point. It has tolled for commonplace and extraordinary events in the life of the Congregation since it was forged. While its physical presence may have been unremarkable to many, this presence has lingered for well over a century, seeing the Congregation and its broader community through everyday life and unprecedented times of change. Throughout evolutions in both religious and school life, the bell has remained.
Those who have seen the bell in person will know it has a striking and imposing presence. It is made of a bronze alloy which makes the bell incredibly heavy. Informed estimates put the weight of the bell at about 400kg. The stand that displays the bell is sturdy and strong enough to hold this weight, but more on that later. The bell was made by John Danks & Son Pty Ltd Sydney who operated a factory at Blackfriars Estate on Buckland St Chippendale from 1894 to 1931. Despite extensive research the exact age of the bell is currently unknown, however it was likely forged between 1894 and the early 20th century, which is later than some previous estimates. The bell was named after St John Berchmans, the patron saint of altar servers and hung at the original St Vincent’s Convent, Potts Point.
From the time of its installation until Vatican II, the bell was rung frequently, up to ten times a day to call Sisters to Mass, prayer and visits to the Blessed Sacrament, for the Angelus and recreation. It was also tolled for the funerals of Sisters, including those of Mo M Francis McGuigan and Mo M Edmund Daniel. Following Vatican II, the use of the bell was reduced to the daily midday Angelus and calling St Vincent’s College students to Mass each Friday. The fond memories many in the Congregation hold of this object are shared by many in the St Vincent’s College community, given the intertwined histories of the Congregation and the College.
As well as being a bold visual and auditory reminder of the rich traditions in the life of the Congregation, the bell has a broader heritage significance. Heritage is not static, and objects like this one tend to evolve and change with time, just like the people and communities they represent. In the case of the convent bell, when the original 1839 Tarmons building was demolished and a new convent building was opened on the same site in 1966, the bell was removed, retained and reinstalled in the new building. When the 1960s Tarmons building within the grounds of St Vincent’s College ceased functioning as a convent in 1993 and the Sisters moved to a new convent at 1 Rockwall Crescent, the bell was again retained. At this time, Mr Owen Magee (1925-2007) built the stand for the bell that is still used today. The stand was built from remnant cedar and tallow wood timber that was retained from the original 1839 Tarmons building when it was demolished in the 1960s. Owen Magee was a great friend of the Sisters of Charity and a notable figure in his own right. This stand allowed the bell to again be retained. Constructing the stand from timber from the original Tarmons building allowed the bell to retain its connection to the original St Vincent’s Convent and maintain a sense of continuity. The strength and endurance of the stand is a testament to the engineering expertise of its maker. The bell is an excellent example of the work undertaken by its maker, John Danks & Son Pty Ltd.
The establishment of the Sisters of Charity Heritage Centre in 2019 allowed the bell to follow in the footsteps of the Sisters, moving from the grounds of St Vincent’s College to 1 Rockwall Crescent. The bell had been on long term loan to St Vincent’s College who had kindly provided the significant space required to store such a large object. Given the size and weight of the bell and stand, the Congregational Archives staff were presented with the logistical challenge of relocating the bell from the black and white Victoria Street entrance to the College, to the Heritage Centre at 1 Rockwall Crescent. Thanks to some professional expertise, the relocation went off without a hitch and the bell is now displayed at the Heritage Centre. Many ask if the bell still works, the answer to which is “yes.” It makes a very loud, clear sound. Due to the size and weight of the bell, we ask all visitors not to touch or try to ring the bell themselves!