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The Story of the Japanese Temple Bell in the Back Bay Fens

Hear the story of how a Japanese Temple Bell came to be placed in the Back Bay Fens.

Don’t miss this moving and poignant tale presented by Lola Heiler-Stillman on Sunday, March 18, from 1 – 2:30 pm at the Shattuck Visitor Center in the Back Bay Fens. All are invited to come hear the fascinating history of a treasured cultural artifact: the Japanese Temple Bell, the last of its kind in America. Heiler-Stillman’s quest to learn the secrets of the bell began early in her docent training. On one of the earlier walks she took with the Conservancy’s Director of External Relations Jeanine Knox last April, the two paused by the bell, and realized how little was known about the history of the ornate artifact. “I found it kind of frustrating that there wasn’t that much information,” she said. “What are [we] doing with a Japanese bell for Pete’s sake?”

With the memory of the previous month’s devastating tsunami fresh in her mind, Heiler-Stillman decided to pursue an independent study of the instrument after reading on the Bell’s plaque that it was from Sendai. “Anything like that really burns itself on your brain,” said Heiler-Stillman.

With Knox’s encouragement, Heiler-Stillman began her research. It was the beginning of an arduous undertaking. “The story is there, but every time I talked to people about it, it would just lead to more and more questions,” she says.

To date, she has spent more than 600 hours poring over historical records in the Boston Arts Commission’s archives, conducting interviews with the men who served aboard the USS Boston, the ship that brought the bell from Japan to America, and speaking with craftsmen who, over the years, have restored the bell to its current condition.

Heiler-Stillman, a social worker who studied anthropology as an undergraduate, has always been fascinated by how different cultures interact. The bell proved a particularly rich object for study.

Forged in 1675, the 450-pound bell rang for centuries in religious ceremonies at the Manpuku-ji temple in Sendai. During World War II, the Japanese government compelled its citizens to donate metals to be smelted down and turned into artillery, and the bells were granted no exception. As a result, nearly 95% of all of the temple bells in Japan were lost. During the American invasion of Japan, Navy soldiers found 500 bells ready to be repurposed into weapons of war and took several back to America. Capt. Marion Kelley of the USS Boston brought this particular bell back in 1946.Over the next decades, all but one of the bells were returned to their original homes in Japan as diplomatic gestures. When the US State Department contacted Sendai in 1953 to arrange the bell’s return, a group called the Temple Believers offered to allow the bell to remain in Boston as a gift. “They were donating it in the spirit of peace and friendship between the two cities,” says Heiler-Stillman.

Heiler-Stillman’s lecture will delve even deeper into the moving history of the bell. Free, but seating is limited, so reservations are recommended.  Call 617-522-2700, or visit www.emeraldnecklace.org/japanesebell.

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