Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Mystery of the Knox Church bells chimes on

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The sinking of the Titanic on that fateful night of April 15, 1912, has long been a treasure trove of mystery -- even stretching to present-day Winnipeg, a full century later.

After all, it has been reported that the surviving Fortune family members, devoted parishioners of the then Knox Presbyterian Church, donated a set of chimes to the church in memory of father Mark and son Charles, who were lost when the White Star liner foundered.

But just try to find them.


Let's begin the Mystery of the Knox Church Bells at the beginning:

In late 1912, two publications -- the Bell News and The Ringing World (still in print today) -- announced the Warner Bellfoundry in England had received an order to deliver a 15 or 16 (the reports vary) bell chime to Knox Presbyterian Church in Winnipeg. According to Carl S. Zimmerman of the Guild of Carrilonneurs in North America, both items reported "the donor was a lady who gave the bells in memory of her husband and son who perished in the sinking of the Titanic."

It is almost certain the "lady" was Mark Fortune's wife, Mary.

Zimmerman told the Free Press the largest bell would have measured 11/2 metres in diameter and weighed about 2 1/2 tonnes.

"I can't say it was delivered," said Zimmerman, when reached in St. Louis.

"I can't say it wasn't, either. But the fact that it was reported in two different places with essentially the same basic points tells me it wasn't just one editor going off on a rumour."

Further, in the book Titanic: The Canadian Story (Véhicule Press, 1998), author Alan Hustak cited the donation of the bells as told to him by Flora Brett, the first cousin of Ethel Fortune, one of three sisters (along with Mabel and Alice) who survived the century-old maritime tragedy.

Hustak wrote: "The chimes which still peal in Winnipeg's Knox United Church were installed and dedicated to his memory."

But they don't.

There are no chimes ringing at Knox United today. In fact, long-serving parishioners of Knox United have no memory of any bell donated by the Fortune family. Moreover, no records of a dedication ceremony for any bells at the time -- somewhere between late 1912 and 1913 -- could be found in the Free Press archives.

Still, that doesn't conclusively prove the bells never existed.

In 1914, when the congregation outgrew the Knox Presbyterian building at Donald Street and Ellice Avenue, construction began on the present site of Knox United, at 400 Edmonton Street.

However, the First World War intervened, and the structure wasn't completed until 1917 due to delays, since many of the Scottish stonemasons enlisted either with the Canadian or British forces.

The historic Gothic structure was converted to Knox United in 1925.

So for whom did the mystery bells toll? Did they even arrive in Winnipeg?

"We've been looking around the church for records of it (the bell donation) and can't find anything," said Barry Anderson, who has been the organist at Knox United for 45 years.

Anderson does recall chimes hooked up to a previous organ in the 1960s that were believed to have been made in Paris.

"You couldn't see them, but you could hear them," he said.

Sadly, a fire set by an arsonist in thsece early 1970s destroyed both the organ and the chimes.

Marilyn Hall, 80, has attended Knox United since the 1940s. Her mother, Alice Tanney, who was born at the turn of the century, was also a lifelong parishioner of the church. Hall vaguely remembers her mother mentioning bells "that went down in the ocean (while being transported across the Atlantic). But I have nothing to back that up."

Knox United Rev. Bill Millar has heard about the Fortune bells, too, but is skeptical they ever existed.

"One (possibility) is that it never happened. It's just a story," he reasoned. "That's the most likely thing."

For example, Millar said, why order, transport and install such a prestigious instrument in the old church when plans to rebuild and relocate were imminent?

"It's hard to believe they would have put the chimes in two years earlier (before the move in 1914). That seems very strange."

Zimmerman, who has been locating church bells for more than 50 years, noted the outbreak of the Great War could have played a factor. The bells could have been ordered (as reported) and delivered, but simply never installed.

Why? Because the bells were made of copper and tin -- and lots of both. It wasn't uncommon during both the First and Second World Wars for bells to be donated back to the foundries, to be melted and transformed into weapons.

"It is possible, or at least conceivable, that the bells were being stored for the new church and then were donated," he said. "That's purely speculation on my part, but things like that happened. The same foundries that made bells in peacetime made cannons in wartime."

One hundred years later, the mystery continues.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 14, 2012 J5


Updated on Saturday, April 14, 2012 at 2:23 PM CDT: Corrects Second World War to First World War

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