The schoolyard bell, its distinguishing mark — a two-inch
crack at its base — and the story behind it might have been lost to
history, leaving it as just a relic from a bygone era similar to any
school bell at a flea market or antique store nearby.
But then, Leona Scharfenberg stepped forward with the unique and interesting backstory.
celebration of her 95th birthday, Scharfenberg returned the bell to her
alma mater, St. John the Baptist (Gildehaus) School in Villa Ridge,
where teaching sisters rang it for at least 53 years, dating to the
Ursuline Sisters’ arrival in 1908. The clang, clang, clang signified the
start and end of the school day, and everything in between — prayer,
lunch, recess, etc.
Fancy electronic bells of the then-new school
building rendered the old bell obsolete in 1961. So, after ringing it
for the last time and with no further use for it, Most Precious Blood
Sister Aniceta Loeffler gave it to Scharfenberg, a parishioner and the
school’s first-ever cook. The “new” school had a cafeteria, whereas the
old one did not.
Sister Aniceta also wondered why St. John the
Baptist’s bell resembled the Liberty Bell, with the crack and all.
Scharfenberg, nee Straatmann, knew all about that from family lore, and
it just so happened that Sister Aniceta inquired while the two men who
caused the crack as boys in about 1920 — her brother Ben and Joe Ley —
were working that day on cabinetry in the new digs.
“She said, ‘By
the way, I’ve been hearing this story about you guys getting into a
fight and breaking the bell … so which one of you guys broke it?’”
Scharfenberg said, with a laugh. “And just like in unison, they said,
‘We know we did it, but we don’t know who.’ … Now that was fast
“We had heard about it at home; it was just known,”
added Scharfenberg, who was the ninth of 12 children. “We knew one of
them broke it, but not which one.”
Boys scuffling over the bell
wasn’t really surprising, considering students routinely vied for the
honor of ringing it. Perhaps they figured both were equally responsible
for the crack … or maybe they never really knew which one of them to
finger. However, it also wouldn’t be surprising if they actually knew
who was responsible and kept the secret when Sister Aniceta asked about
it 40 years later.
“I guess the punishment must not have been too
good,” Scharfenberg said, laughing, adding that Sister Aniceta had told
her to take good care of the bell. She did as told, putting the bell
under glass first in her home (and away from her seven children) and on a
shelf in her senior-living apartment in Washington.
Laverne Schwoeppe didn’t even know she had it until last year when
Scharfenberg asked if she thought the school would want it back.
Schwoeppe quickly answered in the affirmative: “I said, ‘I think they might!’”
used a little steel wool, metal cleaner and elbow grease to remove the
tarnish and make the bell shine like new. Principal Gary Menke put it in
a place of honor in the school office, giving current students a
connection with the school’s rich history. Founded in 1839 as a mission
by the Society of Jesus, St. John the Baptist added Catholic education
in the 1850s, according to archdiocesan records.
“We tell the
children, that after all of these years, this parish, this school, this
campus still holds fine memories for people who want to come back here
and celebrate that,” Menke said. “Now, they’re part of that generational
Menke organized the celebration in Scharfenberg’s honor,
an assembly in the cafeteria — Scharfenberg’s stomping grounds until
1968 — with students, faculty, staff and pastor Father Tim Foy joining
about 24 of Scharfenberg’s family and friends. The students sang happy
birthday and gave her handmade cards; the family treated the students to
Scharfenberg joked that time out of class and
doughnuts — more so than the bell — was the true appeal for the
students. All kidding aside, though, she described the bell and its
unique history as “unbelievable,” adding that there was no question that
she’d take the opportunity to ring it on that special day.
“It was my turn,” she said, smiling.