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Modern technology has simplified the job of church bell ringing. But it also has taken away some of the amusement.
For instance, the Rev. Chuck Walker said beginning monks at the seminary he attended were tasked with ringing the bells – a stressful job, because they’d get into trouble with the abbot if they didn’t toll the variously toned chimes in exactly the right way at the right time of day.
The monks, though, talked about what fun it was to swing on the ropes, said Walker, pastor of St. James Catholic Church in Elizabethtown.
These days, many churches including Walker’s use computer programs to play bells over loudspeakers. (Easier than by hand, of course, but not without pitfalls.)
Throughout history, church bells have served a variety of functions – from telling time to announcing deaths, weddings and calls to prayer. In England during World War II, they warned of attacks.
The bells of St. James play from speakers atop a spire, where a bell traditionally would toll. The sound is of such good quality that it could be mistaken for the real thing, Walker said.
In addition to marking time every 15 minutes, the bell ringing computer can be told to play seasonal tunes at the top of the hour for observances such as Lent and Christmas. At noon, the chimes remind worshippers to pray to the Virgin Mary.
So church bells can provide more meaning to the hour than, say: How long do I have before work?
“Everything is God’s time,” Walker said.
On a more practical note, the 6 p.m. chimes of Glendale Christian Church let kids playing outside know it’s time to come home for supper, Brother Mike Bell said. Also, a visually impaired neighbor told him she wouldn’t be able to tell the time without the tones.
In a place that nurtures its small-town charm, his church also tolls a large (real) bell installed more than a century ago. As with the ones at Walker’s seminary, ringing it can be fun. Children enjoy holding onto the rope, which lifts them off the ground.
If a church were to employ a punctual bell ringer, the traditional method could be more reliable than the one that uses a computer.
Lightning, for example, used to throw off the previous automated system at Glendale Christian. And, after a power failure while Bell was on vacation, somebody reset the clock – but mistakenly made it chime throughout the night.
Also, two Christmases ago in Elizabethtown, Walker and another priest thought they had set their church’s bells to play about 20 holiday tunes and then shut off. After Walker left town that morning to visit family, the music for some reason didn’t stop; it kept recycling for 10 or 11 hours.
When he returned the next morning, he said he listened to numerous voice messages from displeased neighbors.
“I got called everything but Rev. Walker,” he said.
John Friedlein’s Stories from the Heartland column appears Mondays in The News-Enterprise. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.