St. Clement Catholic Church, Chicago, IL

St. Clement Catholic Church in Chicago is a superstar in my book. Why? They have an entire webpage devoted to their bells.

Gabriel Mayhugh, director of liturgy, gave me the behind-the-scenes tour so I could see the bells up close and hear them in action.

First, the computer that rings the bells automatically multiple times throughout the day, including the Angelus at noon and 6 p.m. Chimemaster installed this system.

St. Clement Catholic Church

Next, a former chiming mechanism.

St. Clement Catholic Church

And one of the four fine bells themselves (not sure who cast them, maybe Stuckstede in St. Louis, Missouri?).

St. Clement Catholic Church

And now the bells in full peal.

Gabe described how the bells were loved by the neighborhood–a wonderful example of bells thriving in its institutional and broader community. Thanks, Gabe, for the tour!

Kindred Spirits

Up in Quebec, kindred spirits–Daniel Désormiers, Steffen Jowett, François Mathieu, and Michael Rowan–are also advocating for tower bells.

A few quotes struck me. Rev. G. Malcolm Sinclair of the Metropolitan United in downtown Toronto says, “Instead of people saying, ‘We are part of this community, and the church speaks for us,’” soon, he says, the sentiment will be, “‘Who are these people and why are they making these funny noises?’ You know, I can see that coming.”

That’s true. If bells no longer speak to the values, events, and traditions of the people in the vicnity, the bells will seem like disrupters. And then the next step is not too far away–ceasing with the ringing altogether.

Related to this quote is that from François Mathieu, an artist and author of a book on Quebec’s bells: “The system whereby these ringing sounds are to be validated is very much contested because the religion is itself contested.”

If the function of bells is tied to religion, and religion itself is contested, what to do about the bells? I think the path forward for tower bells in our increasingly secularized societies is to have them ring in meaningful ways for the surrounding community, not only the church community. That’s not to say we should abolish ringing bells for services or other church-related reasons. It’s a both/and situation, not either/or. Bells can represent the voice of the church for some, and represent other values for others. Bells already ring to commemorate significant events in the United States, such as 9/11.  Bells can ring for local or hyperlocal events–farmer’s markets, parades, the last day of school at the neighboring elementary school, etc.–the key is for people to feel like the bells are ringing for them–not just for the church goer.

And really, in a way, this is getting back to a particular point in time in western Europe  in which bells rang for churches, but also for commerce and community. Bells rang to announce Masses, but also to mark the time, curfew, and fire alarms, among other things. The sound was sacred and secular. This, I think, is the path forward to have bells around for another millennium.

St. James Episcopal Cathedral, Chicago, IL

St. James Episcopal Cathedral in the Near North Side Chicago neighborhood is known for its exquisite choir and organ music. Not surprisingly, they complete their sacral soundscape with bells.

The talented and gracious Stephen Buzzard, the organist and choirmaster, showed me around one afternoon.

The chimestand for the ten-bell chime was replaced many years ago with this small keyboard in the sanctuary for ease of performance. Now the organist or choir member can sidle over before the service begins to play a hymn. With the windows closed, we could just barely hear the bells.

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We climbed the winding staircase to view the bells. They were cast by Meneely of Troy back in 1876, so on the older side for bells in Chicago. I still haven’t found anything older than the United Church of Hyde Park bell dated 1870.

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These bells are played mostly automatically; the Westminster Quarters every fifteen minutes through the day and the Angelus at 6 p.m. They are one of the very few instances of real bells ringing out over downtown Chicago. May they keep ringing!

Thank you, Stephen and St. James’ Cathedral!

Buddhist Temple of Chicago

On Nirvana Day, the annual Buddhist festival that recalls the death of the Buddha and his attainment of Nirvana, I visited the Buddhist Temple of Chicago. Bill Bohlman and Rev. Patti Nakai warmly welcomed us.

Tom Corbett rang the kansho (bell) before the service and kindly allowed us to film him. The Buddhist tradition uses a kansho to gather together their members. It is rung in a pattern of seven, five, and three beats, a combination important in the numerology of Japanese Buddhism. In between each set, the player accelerates and decelerates the strikes, mimicking the action of running up and down a hill. This bronze beauty is a small but mighty bell.

For Nirvana Day, Rev. Patti Nakai used the lyrics of Nirvana’s “Come as you are” to structure her message. And then we all sang it! I thoroughly enjoyed that blast from my youthful past.

Thank you, Bill, Rev. Patti, and Tom for welcoming us to your service and bell!

Silent Bells of Downtown Chicago III

I have a special treat for you: recordings of the now-silent bells in the 11 South LaSalle Street Building! You’ll recall that these four bells form a clock chime and chimed an original composition “Samheim.” The bell pitches are B-flat–E-flat–G–B-flat. A nice E-flat major chord in second inversion. So these are the bells you would have heard long ago, in the 1920s and 1930s (and beyond?) in downtown Chicago.

Thank you, Joep van Brussel at Eijsbouts, for sharing these recordings!

St. Paul’s Parish, Riverside, Illinois

Back when there was warmer weather (ah, remember those days?), I visited St. Paul’s Parish in Riverside, Illinois to witness their beautiful ring. Allison Olson kindly showed me around.

The one of only two rings in the Chicago area (the other in Mitchell Tower at the University of Chicago), the eight bells ring from a wooden tower positioned in the courtyard of the church. It kind of looks like a water tower.

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Wooden tower inside courtyard
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the view from the bottom

These bells have a distinguished travel history. Whitechapel cast these bells between 1964 and 1974 and used them as a portable set in England to demonstrate change ringing. Their last performance in England was the most noteworthy: they rang in 1990 for the official celebration of the Queen Mother’s 90th birthday. The bells made their way to St. Paul’s in 1991 for their new permanent home.

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bell with bright red clappers

Allison and the other avid ringers practiced some changes, and let me have a shot. I pulled on the rope to ring the bell, which is quite a bit harder than it sounds. Pulling on the rope with just the right strength and speed so the bell makes a controlled rotation takes finesse. I was able to ring the bell okay, but I definitely wasn’t ready for full-blown change ringing.

Thank you, Allison, for showing me how it’s done!

Silent Bells of Downtown Chicago II

Now onto the bells of the Metropolitan Tower at 310 South Michigan Avenue, which I alluded to last time.

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Metropolitan Tower

Emily Nunn, Chicago Tribune reporter, had the enviable opportunity in 2007 to see the top of the tower–and the bells–up close. Her article lays out most of what I know. I’ll add that these clock-chime bells (not carillon bells, as she describes them) were cast by the Meneely foundry in Troy, New York, just like the other set of silent downtown bells. This set chimed the Westminster Quarters (the same little ditty that Big Ben and three other bells chime in the Palace of Westminster in London). These bells were installed in 1924 and at some point went into disrepair. They were spruced up to play for the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1979. It’s not clear when they stopped playing after that point and what condition they are in now.

I wish I had some pictures to show you! But alas, I have none. Perhaps one day I’ll get to the top of the tower to see them.

Silent Bells of Downtown Chicago

I’ve written about the digital bells you hear in downtown Chicago here and here, but there are other bells…real bronze bells, up in those tall skyscrapers. There’s some in the Metropolitan Tower, which is a blog post for another time, and there are four in the 11 South LaSalle Street Building, otherwise known as the Lumber Exchange Building and Tower or the Roanoke Building and Tower.

Thing is, these real bells in downtown Chicago have gone silent.

But I have pictures and some deets! These four bells were cast by the Meneely Bell Company in Troy, NY in 1926 when the tower was added to the building. They functioned as a clock-chime and chimed an original composition (don’t know who the composer was) called “Samheim,” which is Norse for tomorrow. The largest 7,201 lb bell has “Leander” inscribed on it in honor of Leander McCormick. McCormick and his brothers made their massive fortune manufacturing reaping machines. Later in life he owned large amounts of real estate in Chicago. The Roanoke Building was built fifteen years after his death in 1900, so likely an heir honored him by dedicating these bells to him.

And here are the beauts!

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11 South LaSalle Street bells
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11 South LaSalle Street bells
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11 South LaSalle Street bells

Imagine if you could walk in downtown Chicago and here the unique tune from these bells marking the time. That would be lovely, wouldn’t it?

Thank you to Joep van Brussel at Royal Eijsbouts for sharing the photos and to Carl Zimmerman for sharing his info on the bells!

 

Buried Alive, with Bells

Happy Halloween! Bells have a sinister side, too, you know. As my colleague Tiffany Ng has argued in her doctoral dissertation, in cultural representations bells have been associated with utopias and dystopias—death, decay, and all the rest of it.

And we don’t even have to look at cultural representations—we can just look at the macabre security coffin from Europe.*

 

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Fear of being buried alive has been common since time immemorial. By the 19th century, western science still hadn’t quite honed in on the notion that death was confirmed by a stopped heartbeat, and anecdotes abounded of the dead coming back to life days after their supposed death. What to do? One gross solution was to store bodies in a Leichenhäuser, a waiting mortuary, for a time until they had decomposed enough to ensure that they were really, truly dead. That place must have stunk to high heaven for a mile around. Another solution was to rig up your coffin to a bell above ground, so that the bell would ring should the poor person awake while in the grave. Yes, you read that right—bells to alarm those above ground that the buried is still alive.

There were different mechanisms to ring the bell. Some required intelligent motion, by pulling on a string, for example. Others were activated by the mere slightest movement of the chest and arms, should the person not have the strength to even pull a string.

Bells in this case signaled life—actually, resurrection! Bells toll to mark the death of a Christian, and here bells have the duty to announce the person’s earthly life again. These patented coffins never made deep inroads in the funeral market, but that’s probably for the best. It turns out that the bloating of a decomposing body would have been enough to trigger the bell in the security coffin detecting slight movements in the chest and arms. Just imagine hearing a bell at a graveyard, frantically digging down to the coffin to release the desperate person inside, perhaps with the family nearby…only to find a putrefied body. Gruesome, to say the least. Hearing the bell at the graveside, after a few incidents like this, one wouldn’t be sure if it signaled death or life.

* Information on security coffins taken from Bondeson, Jan. Buried Alive: the Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002.