A TALE ABOUT GRAND PRE’S CHURCH BELL (April 8/05)

“During one of our evening rambles about Grand Pre,” Phillip Smith wrote in 1884, “we came upon a number of hollows partially filled with earth and debris, and overgrown with… weeds and bushes.”

Smith noted that the hollows marked the cellars “on which stood the thatched dwellings of the peaceful Acadians,” the dwellings that were burned during the expulsion period. Such excavations, Smith said, are to be found “in great numbers along the banks of the Canard and Cornwallis Rivers, and in the valley of the Gaspereau.”

Smith is the author of Acadia: A Lost Chapter in American History, published in New York in 1884. I learned about the book from Roger Hetu of the Les Amis de Grand-Pre. Mr. Hetu contacted me about my column on the search for the Grand Pre church bell, later forwarding the website address where extracts from Smith’s book are found. One chapter of Smith’s work deals with folklore about the Acadian church at Grand Pre and its missing bell. Mr Hetu said that it was the basis for a legend about the bell that was later published in 1907 by the Revue Acadienne.

Smith’s description of Grand Pre well over a century ago offers a fascinating glimpse of old Acadia. Apparently, Smith was exploring this area, either as a historical researcher or tourist, and had acquired the services of a guide identified as Pierre. They were in Grand Pre, on an “evening ramble,” when Pierre called Smith over to the “very spot where stood the church (of the Acadians).” It was there that Smith learned about the fate of the church bell.

Standing at what Pierre identified as the site of the church – “a small rectangle marked by a slight rise of earth at the four corners” – Smith was told that the bell was “buried, just before the English came, in a vault built of stone and covered with earth. The vault was walled up in two parts; into one of these they put the bell, and the other was for church treasure.”

At this point, Smith asked his guide if this meant that the bell was still buried there.

The guide replied in the negative. “Some believe that the bell and the church treasure were dug up and carried away by robbers. A great many years ago a strange vessel was observed in the Basin of Minas, and a party of men was seen to leave it about midnight and come ashore here.

“Before daybreak, a terrible storm arose and the next morning nothing was seen of the ship. Some thought that during the night… they heard the sounds of a church bell; but little was thought of it until they observed the earth had been disturbed, and a piece of wood was picked up near this place of a shape sometimes used to support a bell in a tower. From these circumstances they were led to surmise that the robbers had found where the vault was and carried away what they wanted.”

Pierre told Smith that the vessel carrying the bell was lost at sea during the storm. However, he said, his grandfather didn’t believe that robbers were involved. “My grandfather… claimed the contents of the vault were put on a vessel bound to the Gaspe coast, and were intended for a chapel at a village of some Acadians who had taken refuge there; but the ship was lost within sight of land and every soul on board perished.

Both versions of this folktale have the Grand Pre church bell resting somewhere out there on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

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