St. Mary of the Lake, Chicago, Illinois

“Well, weren’t the Irish the domestics at that time?” I asked as my kind guide explained that the loft in the luxurious St. Mary of the Lake was meant for the domestics (i.e. servants). He had just mentioned that the church was built for Irish families living in the neighborhood of Buena Park, Chicago, in the early 20th century. The families who supported this church were the well-to-do Irish—doctors, lawyers, and the like. And you can see it in the gorgeous interior replete with marble.

But of course, we’re here for the bells.

St. Mary of the Lake, Chicago, IL tower
St. Mary of the Lake, Chicago, IL tower

But you know what? Those bells are for show only! They’re made of fiberglass! Fooled me! The real bells are bronze rods located inside the tower, which are struck, electronically amplified, and then broadcast over speakers out of the tower. This video shows the mechanism of the bronze rods being struck.

George Schulmerich invented this system of amplified bell tones back in the 1930s and set up his business in Sellersville, Pennsylvania. He sold thousands of these mechanisms in the United States and beyond. No doubt a strong selling point of the system was its much lower price compared to a set of standard bronze bells for a peal, chime, or carillon. The company is still thriving, although its main products now are handbells.

So here’s the Schulmerich console inside the church, which the friendly Deacon Paul Spalla showed me. It’s a model from the 1930s. They had it installed when their other electronic bell system failed after getting struck by lightning twice. Just flip a few switches and then you’ve got bell music.

St. Mary of the Lake, Chicago, IL Schulmerich console
St. Mary of the Lake, Chicago, IL Schulmerich console

And look at the bells “ringing” as the music plays! They indicate that the bronze rods are being played up in the tower.

I can’t say I was fooled when I heard the bronze rods (sorry, I have a hard time calling these bells). They reminded me of tubular bells in grandfather clocks. So few churches have the resources to install the number of bells required for a chime or carillon, alas. The idea of having bell sounds play hymns from their tower is evidently more alluring than just having one or two large bronze bells to toll.

4 thoughts on “St. Mary of the Lake, Chicago, Illinois

  1. Thank you for the info on St. Mary of the Lake! I lived in Buena Park for a few years… I could tell this wasn’t a real carillon but it always sounded like more than electronic reproduction. I could never find any info on the church’s website or anywhere else online. So I REALLY appreciate your write-up!

  2. Another thought- is this the same chime technology that can be heard in Daley Plaza? Due to the echo from the buildings, I don’t know where the sound comes from, but there’s a chime downtown. It’s not a carillon (none are downtown Chicago). I think it’s either a very good electronic reproduction or the same technology you describe here: amplified tube chimes. Do you know?

    1. I believe what you hear in the plaza is really from the Methodist church tower
      on the corner and “up in the sky” — they have been there for a long time. And with all the nearby buildings the sound just echoes off them. They are beautiful even if they aren’t a “real” carillon.

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