An emblematic bell symbolizing religious freedom has returned to its native parish, inviting everyone to safeguard the “sacred right” to worship.

Philadelphia Auxiliary Bishop Timothy Senior presided over a prayer service May 7 at St. Augustine Parish in the Old City neighborhood, where he blessed Sister Bell — a 150-book lesson in the beginnings of the American history and a reminder that “religion’s precious gift of freedom…cannot be taken for granted,” the Bishop said.

Celebrating the bell’s long and lively journey to St. Augustine, Augustinian Father Bill Waters, pastor; Sheila Hess, City of Philadelphia Representative; Philadelphia City Councilman Mark Squilla, who also presented a city commendation for the occasion; James Cuorato, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Independence Visitor Center; and about twenty parishioners and faithful from the region.

Members of the parish choir performed “Sound the Bell of Holy Freedom,” the official hymn for the 2015 World Meeting of Families, held in Philadelphia.

Written by Normand Gouin and Premonstratensian Father Andrew Ciferni, the lyrics of the song “call all the nations of the earth” and the story of Sister Bell contain a powerful message not only for Americans, but for humanity, a said Bishop Senior.

Originally cast in 1754 to replace the Liberty Bell, which had cracked during its first trials, the Sister Bell hung in the shadow of its repaired (and later re-cracked) older brother, striking the hours at what later became Independence Hall.

In 1777, the two bells were smuggled to Allentown to avoid seizure by invading British troops, and were returned to Philadelphia in 1778. About 40 years later, the city transferred the Sister Bell (also nicknamed “The Other One”) to the Augustinian clergy who served Old St. Augustine Parish, located at 4th and Vine streets.

Amid a sharp spurt of discrimination against Catholics and immigrants (especially those from Ireland), the church was burnt down on May 8, 1844 by members of the Native American political party, often referred to as the “Know-Nothings” for the secrecy of the members. regarding their affiliation and activities.

Philadelphia Auxiliary Bishop Timothy Senior blesses Sister Bell May 7, assisted by Augustinian Father Bill Waters, pastor of St. Augustine Parish in Philadelphia, the historic and now permanent home of the bell. (Gina Christian)

Pennsylvania was a hotbed for such sentiment: St. Michael’s Church on Second Street, a seminary, and several private homes were destroyed along with St. Augustine during the same three-day riot, and violence erupted again throughout the city in July 1844.

Following the May 1844 fire, the remaining fragments of the Sister Bell were reassembled and recast into its present form, which spent most of the intervening years at Villanova University, with a 1917 stint in 1942 at St. Nicholas of Tolentine Parish in Jamaica, New York.

Although much smaller than the original, the redesigned Sister Bell speaks even louder, said Bishop Senior, who reflected on the biblical inscription found on both its predecessor and the Liberty Bell: “Proclaim liberty in all the land to all its inhabitants” (Leviticus 25:10, King James version).

The verse itself was chosen to commemorate the 50th anniversary of William Penn’s 1701 Charter of Privileges, which guaranteed religious freedom and self-government to Pennsylvanians, the bishop said.

The charter was confirmed when St. Augustine Parish successfully sued the town following the 1844 fire, and the funds granted enabled the congregation to rebuild the current church – designed by Napoleon LeBrun, architect of the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul – in 1847.

More broadly, however, the passage from Leviticus – which refers to the Jubilee year of ancient Israel, when debts were canceled – recalls “the recognition that we are all equal, since God created in his image and likeness”. said the senior bishop.

Human beings have been endowed with “(a) the freedom God has given us, (a) the most precious right ‘to worship and to enjoy’ a relationship with a loving God, who has given us life,” he said.

Churches such as St. Augustine, which Hess hailed as “a gem and a treasure” for its beauty, provide necessary and sacred spaces in which to exercise that privilege — but such rights can never be taken for granted, said Bishop Senior.

The nativist riots of the 1840s served as a “chilling reminder” that “we must cherish and defend this freedom” in the face of religious repression and persecution, he said.

Yet even when those freedoms are violated, “the people who make up the church will never be destroyed,” Squilla said. “Even though it sometimes seems like we’re going through tough times, we as a people will stand up and make this country a better place, just like we did here in St. Augustine.”

Father Waters agreed, saying the Sister Bell – now housed in a custom display case in the church’s narthex – is a “concrete sign of our parish’s history and resilience, and of freedom and freedom”.

Philadelphia Councilman Mark Squilla (second from left) and City Representative Sheila Hess (third from left) joined Philadelphia Auxiliary Bishop Timothy Senior (right) and St. Augustine Pastor Father Bill Waters , OSA (left of Hess) at Sister Bell’s May 7 blessing. (Gina Christian)