News story

From Swansea to Santiago – historic church bells to return home

A set of church bells that survived a Santiago fire and spent almost 150 years in Wales will return to Chile to mark the country's bicentennial celebrations, Minister for Latin America Jeremy Browne will announce today.

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The three bells were sold for scrap after the blaze in Chile’s capital in 1863 and then shipped thousands of miles across the Atlantic to a new home in All Saints Church in Oystermouth, near Swansea. The Parochial Church Council has decided to donate the bells to Chile as a gift for the country’s 200th birthday this year.

The bells are currently en route to the Chilean port of Valparaiso after hitching a lift on the Royal Navy ship HMS Portland. They are due to arrive in early September before being transported to Santiago for a handover ceremony attended by the Chilean president, Sebastian Piñera. The bells will become the centrepiece of a new memorial on the site of the old church.

Jeremy Browne, who is currently in Chile on the second leg of his visit to South America, will make the announcement later today following a meeting with the Chilean foreign minister, Alfredo Moreno.

Jeremy Browne said:

“This is a truly remarkable story. I would like to thank the Church in Wales and the parishioners of the All Saints Church in Oystermouth for their exceptional generosity.

“The fire that destroyed the church of La Compañia de Jesus was a terrible tragedy. Its resonance is felt by the people of Santiago to this day. The trio of bells, which rung out in the city 150 years ago, are on their way home. I cannot think of a more fitting memorial to those who lost their lives.”

History of an unlikely journey

The bells were originally housed in the church of La Compañia de Jesus in Santiago, Chile. On 8 December 1863, the church caught fire during the Catholic feast of the Immaculate Conception. More than 2,500 people died, mostly women and children, in the worst blaze in Santiago’s history.

The church was completely destroyed except for its five metal bells. Three of bells were bought as scrap and then shipped to Swansea by a British merchant named Graham Vivian. They found a new home in the All Saints Church in Oystermouth, Wales, where the Vivians had a family pew. This was to be their home for almost 150 years.

It was in 2009 that the then Chilean Ambassador to the UK started negotiations with the Church in Wales to return the bells to Chile. Following the Chilean earthquake in February this year, the Parochial Church Council decided to donate the bells as a gift for Chile’s bicentenary celebrations in 2010.

Reverend Keith Evans, parish priest for All Saints Church in Oystermouth, said:

“Our decision to gift the historic bells to the people of Chile was a unanimous one. It was supported wholeheartedly by the wider community of Mumbles, where the tragic story of the ‘Bells of Santiago’ has been remembered and celebrated through the years.

“Though we were custodians of the bells for almost 150 years we felt that their rightful place should be as part of a new memorial to the 2,500 victims of the 1863 fire. The gift is made in Christian love and in the hope that it will renew historic links between Swansea and Santiago. Though the bells will be thousands of miles away they will continue to be part of our story at All Saints Oystermouth.”

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Published 10 August 2010