Rich Joyce returned to Wilmington in 2015 after spending several years out of town with the Josephite priests and brothers, and shortly after returning to his hometown he bought a house two blocks from his boyhood parish, Christ Our King.
“Two months after buying the house — I could walk to church and just loved it, being a faithful Catholic — they just closed it. It was pretty sad,” he said in late July.
Not only was his house of worship gone, but the daily tolling of the church’s bell ceased at the same time. A former teacher of his warned that this was a bad sign.
“If I learned anything in the seminary after nine years, it was that one phrase. I just took in the historical part when that Dominican at Dominican House of Studies said, ‘Any denomination’s church bell, when it goes silent in the neighborhood, that means the neighborhood is not healthy.’ When you take down the church bell, that’s pretty rough,” he said.
The bell had been part of Christ Our King since 1957, when Bishop Hubert Cartwright, the coadjutor of the Diocese of Wilmington, had a bell delivered from his native Philadelphia. Bishop Cartwright was also the pastor of Christ Our King after arriving in Wilmington in late 1956.
Alas, the bishop did not have much time to enjoy his parish, the diocese or the bell. A heavy smoker, Bishop Cartwright died from lung cancer in March 1958. But his bell would ring for the next 57 years.
After the church closed, it was purchased by Congo Funeral Homes. Joyce said the funeral home owner agreed to let him restore the bell and have it ring twice a day, at noon and 6 p.m. Those times coincide with the Angelus, the Catholic devotion that calls for prayer at those times, plus 6 a.m. Ringing bells started in 1456, when Pope Calixtus III directed that bells be rung every day at noon and that Catholics pray three Hail Marys.
With Congo’s permission, Joyce got to work on the bell. He said Father Leonard Kempski had it recast while he was pastor, “and it’s in great shape. It’s a confident bell. When that thing rings, it rings.”
The bell tower itself, he added, is in good shape, and the bell was anchored correctly when he got up there.
“It needed a little computer work done on it to get it up and running,” said Joyce, 55, a 1983 graduate of Salesianum School. We had to find a computer kid. He spent about and hour on it punching buttons.”
When the bell rang for the first time again on March 13 at noon, Joyce said four neighbors came out of their homes and asked what was going on. He told them about the Dominican who taught him in the seminary, and he gave credit to Ernest Congo for agreeing to its restoration.
The Catholic church, he continued, is just one denomination that has left the neighborhood. It also has lost Baptist, Presbyterian and Episcopal churches, along with a synagogue.
“I believe that the Gospel message is being preached by the ringing of the bell each day at noon and 6 p.m. That is why I hope people take time to drive by to hear it for themselves because St. Francis stated, ‘Preach the Gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.’”
Christ Our King closed in November 2016 after serving Wilmington’s Ninth Ward for 90 years. The diocese cited a dwindling number of registered families, persistent deficit and the presence of several other parishes within a few miles of the church as reasons for the decision.