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GOD & TEXAS: Refugio Bells

The church bell was partially submerged in a muddy ditch when Nicholas Fagan found it. Believing it to be an answer to prayer, he dug it up and took it home. But the story of the bell began in 1737.

Some say that Nicholas was a lucky man. He came to Texas from Ireland in 1829 and settled in the Power-Hewetson Colony near what is now known as Refugio. Fagan became a true hero of the Texas Revolution and noted rancher. To this day, he is remembered for having repeatedly escaped certain death by yellow fever, cholera, storms, and bullets. But was it the luck of the Irish or something more?

His most miraculous escape from death was when Nicholas served as a private in Frazer’s Refugio Company at the Battle of Coleto Creek in March 1836. While approximately 340 Texan soldiers were massacred by the Mexican Army, Fagan was saved through the intercession of friends in the Mexican army. Unbelievable, but true.

The home that Fagan built for his family was a hardy two-story structure that included a chapel on the second floor. It was the place of prayer and refuge for Nicholas from the troubles of the day. At that time, the area around Refugio was plagued with savage Comanche attacks and brutal sorties by Mexican troops.

The bell that Fagan discovered had been forged in Spain in 1737. Around 1796, the bell was hung with three other bells in the towers of Nuestra Señora del Refugio (Our Lady of Refuge) Mission in what became the city of Refugio. The bells provided a schedule for the surrounding inhabitants for labor in the fields, and calls to worship. Life responded to the prompting of the bells.

Eventually, the mission failed, and was abandoned. During ensuing storms and war, the old mission towers crumbled and the bells fell. Townspeople sold the bells for scrap and had them hauled off to Victoria. On the way, a storm hit the area and the cart containing the scrap broke down on the edge of the San Antonio River. The historic bells were abandoned in the mud.

Years later, Nicholas Fagan found one salvageable bell and hung it in his upstairs chapel. Knowing that it came from Our Lady of Refuge Mission brought him confirmation and peace. When Nicholas died, he willed the bell to his grandson Dennis O’Connor.

According to family history, Dennis remembered that “this bell was the first I ever heard to summon me to divine worship.” In the years to follow, that same bell was cherished and hung in several family chapels until it was donated to the Refugio County Historical Society by Ms. Kathryn Stoner O’Connor before her death in 1979. It can now be seen in the Refugio County Museum.

The early settlers of Texas often turned to God for comfort and strength. They understood Psalm 46:1 KJV, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” It is still true today.

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