The story of ‘BIG JOE’

On October 30, 1895, the largest bell in America was cast. The clapper alone weighs 640 pounds. The weight of the bell itself is 27,390 pounds; the weight of the mountings takes the total weight to 35,000 pounds. The bell hangs in the tower of St. Francis de Sales Roman Catholic Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, and when installed was the largest swinging church bell in the world.

BIG JOE has been tolling the hours and calling parishioners to St. Francis de Sales in Cincinnati, Ohio for nearly 120 years. The largest swinging bell ever cast in the United States, BIG JOE occupies an entire floor of the Church’s 230-foot stone steeple. BIG JOE is named after Joseph T. Buddeke, a St. Francis de Sales parishioner who was the largest donor towards its casting and installation. The cost of the project was between $12,000 and $15,000 (a very large sum in 1895). BIG JOE was intended to be equal in size and a replication of BIG BEN in London. The only difference between the two bells is that BIG BEN never did swing.

BIG JOE was raised into the belfry by horses.

The awesome task of casting BIG JOE was bestowed upon the E.W. VanDuzen Company, a well-known foundry on Second Street at Broadway in Cincinnati. On October 30, 1895, the largest church bell in America was cast. It took 41 minutes to pour the metal. The bell measures seven feet from rim to crown, with a diameter of nine feet at the base. It weighs an enormous 35,000 pounds. The clapper alone weighs 640 pounds. When completed, it required 14 horses to haul BIG JOE up Gilbert Avenue to St. Francis De Sales Church.

BIG JOE at St. Francis de Sales Parish

From there, the story of BIG JOE remains somewhat of a mystery. Legend has it that BIG JOE was rung for the first time in early January, 1896. People say its E-flat peal could be heard for a 15-mile radius. It rattled nearby buildings, shattering windows in the neighborhood. Alvin Harlow, a Cincinnati historian, said: “It was installed, it swung, and all of Walnut Hills nearly jumped out of its collective skin. The earth trembled, windows nearby broke from the concussion, and tiny bits of cement were seen falling from between the stones of the church tower.”

After just one ringing, the story goes, it was decided that BIG JOE must never swing again, so the Church immobilized the bell. Now, a Verdin foot hammer strikes the edge of the bell, just as it has for the past century. Albeit more quietly, BIG JOE still does his job. At 6:00 a.m., 12:00 noon, and 6:00 p.m., BIG JOE rings The Angelus, the Westminster chimes and hour strikes, and funeral tolls. Four smaller bells are mounted on the floor above and join in on the ringing. The Verdin Company has provided the service and maintenance for BIG JOE and the peal of bells at St. Francis de Sales for decades.