It’s a tradition that goes back more than a thousand years. Before there were clocks and watches, bells would call churchgoers to prayer. At Mission San Luis Obispo, a small but dedicated group of volunteers make sure the bells keep ringing as a call to mass and for weddings and funerals, just as they have for the past 200 years.
The five bells that now hang in the mission campanile or bell tower are replacements of the originals first commissioned in 1818 by Father Luis Antonio Martinez. "These bells, if you look at these bells, they are named after the first five missions of Alta California," said Bob Flores.
Flores is a professor at Cal Poly and one of the volunteer bell ringers. Every Monday just before noon, he makes his way up to the tower, signs the log book to document the bells were rung, dons protective head gear and get’s ready to call parishioners to the 12 o’clock mass. Over time, the call to prayer also became a kind of "all is well." If the mission bells ring – residents know everything is alright.
"This is just fun. This is fun. It’s an activity that gets me out, brings me here. You know I spend most of my day on campus. This is a bit of relief…time to think," said Flores.
In 2005, five new bells were commissioned to replace the originals, two of which had been lost, but the ringing of the bells is still done by hand every time.
"Oh this is a proud tradition. You know what the parishioners here, no way would they ever say let’s automate this. In fact if I suggested that, I might as well pack up and leave town. Like I said, this is fun. This is part of a rich tradition in the church. Let’s keep it this way," said Flores.
He says he doesn’t see himself handing over the lines anytime soon. "When my back starts to arch just a little bit I’ll probably still be ringing the bells."