June 10, 2021
Written by 
Luke F. McCusker III

A Mix of Toughness and Reverence: John J. Matey, Bell Installer

A recent Zoom event was a wonderful gathering, with Museum friends from Texas, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia and greater Maryland joining in. Ria Crocker was with us, and she and her mother told us a little bit about ancestor John J. Matey, who worked for Baltimore’s internationally known McShane Bell Foundry.

The firm was established in 1856 by Henry McShane, and still exists today. Bells from the firm are found in all 50 states, and thousands of churches looked to them when the time came to install their own set. They were designed to serve as a call to worship, celebration and to communicate the time of day to the community. Some churches rang the bells at particular times as a call to prayer, such as the Angelus Bell rung by Catholic Churches at 6:00 a.m., noon and 6:00 p.m. At least one Catholic boy told me he would rush home from the bus stop just to avoid having to pray on the sidewalk at 6:00. Dad would probably deny that if you asked him now.

The casting of a set of bells was a huge task. Each was inscribed by the maker and usually included the purchaser’s name and its destination. Many churches had a flight of bells installed, requiring multiple ringers and a major apparatus to hang them from securely. Large powerful cranes to lift them skyward were a thing of the future, and experienced riggers/installers used other methods to place them in the churches’ significant bell towers.

John J. Matey (pictured, second from right) was such an installer. He is shown with a collection of men and boys in this wonderful image. Family lore tells us that this particular install was done in Monongahela Pennsylvania, just 17 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, PA. Research is ongoing, but the church just behind the set of bells seems to be a Methodist Church that still exists today.

John was the right sort of fellow for a job like this: an effective mix of toughness and reverence. He was born circa 1868 in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and immigrated to America in the late 1870’s. Records show that he was a sailor at some point, and eventually ran saloons in East Baltimore.

John’s career with McShane Bell Foundry likely began around 1882, and he served the firm as a molder, rigger and bell erector, with just enough bell ringing skills to give basic lessons to the purchasers, as needed. His celebrity, however was established in countless cities and towns where he led the skilled and unskilled in raising bells heavenward. He did so in at least eleven states (we’re still counting), and used practical methods to complete the task at hand.

Newspaper accounts tell us about the excitement once John and his crew arrived in town for an installation, as documented in the June 15, 1909 edition of New Jersey's Bridgeton Evening News. The headline announced that a “Celebration of Chimes Day” would be held the following Saturday, once the installation crew had taken care of business. John J. Matey led workers that included the boys of the town, who pulled ropes with all their might to raise up the smaller of the ten bells that were being installed at Central Methodist Episcopal Church (photo below); it would be a bragging point for the boys for years to come.

Men joined in to help complete the two-day operation, and an occasional horse and wagon were drafted into good use, much to the delight of the waggoneer, but likely less so by the horse. He advanced one step at a time to send the larger bells upward, with special care given to avoid any swinging back and forth, and the damage it might cause to the façade of the church.

The largest bell weighed 3,100 lbs. and was raised via windlass by four men to complete the set in the tower. An important final test was done by John Matey himself; he threw his considerable frame upon the largest bell, being sure that all felt right before he could conclude that the job was well done. No one was more pleased than Joseph A. Clark, sponsor of the bells placed there “for the delight of the city and the honor of the Church”.

John and his first wife Anna M. Olschefka married in 1886 and had ten children together, with five living at the time of the 1910 Census. They lived for many years at 1826 E. Lombard St., just two doors from St. Michael’s Catholic Church at Wolfe and Lombard St. It was a German congregation that had its own schools. Two of his daughters, Theresa and Margaret, graduated from there in June, 1917. Their mother Anna passed away in 1922, and John married Emma Eber a few years later.

John enjoyed his grandchildren immensely, and they adored him. One tells the story that “I was the first grandchild in the family and would spend afternoons playing cards with him. And unbeknownst to me, he would use German curse words when I beat him. I later found out they weren't good things to say when I played cards with my mother".

"My favorite memory of him is when he played a record called "The Laughing Dutchman" to all the grandkids. It was simply a recording of a man laughing infectiously, and we would all be squealing with laughter listening to it”.

He and his family moved to a large attractive home in the Gardenville area of Baltimore later in life, and John continued his career with McShane. He was listed as a bell ringer at church in the 1930 Census, at age 65. One wonders if that was how he occupied his time during retirement years.

John J. Matey passed away on February 13, 1939. His funeral Mass was held at Gardenville's St. Anthony of Padua Church, and he was buried alongside his first wife Annie at Sacred Heart Cemetery.

Special thanks to artist Patrick Harnett who did a little magic on the old photo of John J Matey and crew for us...a marvelous restored image.

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