NEW BEDFORD (CBS) – It’s a court battle over church bells.
The fight is over fourteen church bells that were recently removed from Saint Lawrence Martyr Church in New Bedford, where they’ve been since 1888. Now, some parishioners who raised a lot of money to preserve them are suing the church and the Diocese of Fall River over the bells.
“We don’t know what happened with respect to the money,” Carlin Phillips, the plaintiff’s attorney, said in court Tuesday.
“We can account for every penny that has been either donated or spent on this project,” said attorney David Gay, representing the Diocese of Fall River.
In a statement Tuesday, the Fall River Diocese said it is researching the lawsuit that was filed “but feels there is no merit to it nor any misappropriation of funds by the Diocese as claimed.”
The bells now sit at the local company that did the removal.
Suzanne Sullivan, a church parishioner and plaintiff in the case, said, “I want the bells of Saint Lawrence to stay in the city of New Bedford.”
She and other parishioners raised more than $300,000 earmarked to repair the church’s bell tower and save the bells.
But because the church needs so much serious structural work, the diocese decided it couldn’t save the bells, and sold them to another company. Phillips said the diocese apparently transferred the money to a general account.
“We should have an injunction stopping the transfer of those bells out of state,” said Phillips, Sullivan’s attorney.
They’re suing the diocese and the company that bought the bells, and they’re asking a judge to issue a restraining order so the historic bells stay put.
But Gay, the church’s attorney, said that’s not possible.
“We don’t have them anymore, your honor,” Gay said in court. He said a restraining order won’t work.
“It’s moot. You could issue an order but we can’t do anything about it. We don’t have possession of the bells. We sold them. They’re gone,” Gay said.
The judge agreed and did not issue an order. But the battle of the bells isn’t over. They’ll all be back in court next month.
“Just because it’s the church, it doesn’t mean they get to raise funds and then not put those funds to the use for which they were raised,” Phillips said.
In its statement, the diocese statement said Father Robert Powell, pastor of St. Lawrence Martyr Church, oversaw the sale of the parish’s 14 bells to the Verdin Bell Company. The parish will receive the $32,000 proceeds remaining from the sale after Verdin covers its cost for their removal from the bell tower.
“The decision by the parish to sell the bells, which have not worked in some time, followed the parish’s receipt of a proposal of $66,000 to repair their deteriorated mountings and an additional $73,838 estimate not including electrical work to make them operable again,” the statement said. “An electronic carillon system was installed in 2016.”
Powell “had previously surveyed parishioners on the prospective sale of the bells, receiving support for going forward with it. He likewise received advice to proceed from members of both the parish Pastoral Council and Finance Council,” the statement said.
The Verdin Company had initially given Powell an anticipated date of Nov. 19 or 20 for removal of the bells, the statement said.
“However, because their necessary preparatory work took less time than expected, they began that work last week without prior notification to either St. Lawrence Parish or the Fall River Diocese,” the statement said. “Work is well underway on the St. Lawrence Parish bell tower to repair the leaks, repoint the stone, and replace the crumbling traceries.”
Meanwhile, Suzanne Sullivan said she won’t give up.
“I am a fighter and I will fight,” she said.