Gimme Shelter: Church bells in March

AMBROSE CLANCY PHOTO The bell tower of St. Mary's Episcopal Church.

AMBROSE CLANCY PHOTO The bell tower of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church.

One day last week I decided to ring some church bells.

I’ve had this feeling before. The last time was more than 10 years ago when I asked if I could ring the bells of Orient United Methodist Church, and the sextant obliged me. Call me crazy.

Church bells have always stopped me. Literally, if I’m walking and hear them in the distance. Or if I’m driving and hear their  music on the breeze, they stop my thoughts. The solemn beauty of the bells, sounds giving texture to the air, always call me back to something that doesn’t allow for expression, because I can’t quite connect the feeling to words.

Sometimes an act expresses an emotion more clearly than words. Sometimes, the more you use words to discover something within you, the further away you get from it.

I met Father Charles McCarron at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church on a wet, chilly afternoon. Father McCarron said he had never been up in the bell “chamber,” a separate space at the top of the bell tower, and welcomed the opportunity to go exploring.

From the tiny vestibule of the church, a door opened to a winding wooden staircase as steep as a ladder. Father McCarron said St. Mary’s had two bells, a funeral bell that tolls — single notes — and a larger bell that rings “joyously” and is rung twice a week on Sunday before the 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. services. The bell also rings out at the annual 10K Run/Walk in June as the runners come up the hill to St. Mary’s.

The bell surely tolls for thee, but more likely than not these days the church bell is rung by a computer chip of recorded sounds. It’s as rare today for a bell to alert the community to a crisis as it is for an actual person to ring a church bell. On the Island, Our Lady of the Isle has no bell and never has, Father Peter DeSanctis said. Union Chapel has a bell, but the bells of the Presbyterian Church are recorded.

Above the winding stairs was a small, dusty space. It was dark and the damp day brought forth a rich odor of old wood. In a corner was an actual ladder that we climbed to the bell chamber.

Bells first came into use as early as 400 A.D. by Christians to call people to prayer, note the death of a parishioner and to alert the community to danger. It wasn’t until the 15th century that master Flemish bell makers discovered a process to tune bells and make them musical instruments.

In the Catholic tradition, the Angelus bell is rung in the evening, three notes a beat apart, followed by silence. The series is then repeated three times. The purpose is not just a call to prayer, but for the listener to stop and reflect on the day that is passing.

When it comes to religion, I’m a weddings and funerals man. But I’ve always liked churches, and learned through 16 years of Catholic education that they’re more than religious venues; they’re places of art, theater, architecture, language and music. Culture with a capital C.

One Sunday morning when I was 14, my sister Liz shook me and said it was time to get up for Mass.

“I’m not going,” I told her and turned over. My mother shook my shoulder next and said I had to get up and I told her the same thing. Why? she asked. I told her I didn’t believe in it any more.

I was awake staring at the ceiling when my father came in. “What you believe or don’t believe has nothing to do with this,” he said. “Get up and get ready. You’re not going to break your mother’s heart.”

There was no arguing with him, ever, but I thought later that he had given me an enduring gift, one of many I cherish. My beliefs were my own. I was entitled to them. (I didn’t break my mother’s heart until I was 18.)

My father was the kind of man who wore a hat and lightly touched the brim whenever he passed a Catholic church. That was the only show he made of his religion. He followed the rules, mostly. He would give up drinking for Lent, but claimed he had a dispensation from the bishop for March 17.

We had trouble, like many fathers and sons. But more than 20 years before he died, all was resolved.

He died on a March night in Florida, where he and my mother were vacationing. He’d had a heart attack a week before and I went down to be with them, spending every day in the hospital with him and going with my mother to church, the first time in years. He had a good death, if there is such a thing. Peaceful, himself to the very last.

I remember the tolling of the bell at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs in Queens as the pallbearers carried the casket out that March morning. I continued to go to church after his funeral, but gave it up after a few months.

St. Mary’s bell chamber has louvered shutters to allow the sound to flow out. The funeral bell is small, with an iron clapper, like a hammer, bolted beneath it. When the rope is pulled from below, the clapper rises to strike the bell once and then comes back to rest.

Next to it is a large bronze bell green with age with a clapper hanging within it. It’s hung on a wheel that swings the bell when the rope is pulled.

Words are inscribed in the weathered bronze surface. Father McCarron, drawing close to see the words in the gloom, read them aloud: “In loving memory of Jarvis Bonesteel Edson. Born April 30, 1845. Died January 26, 1911. An upright, honorable man and devoted father and husband.”

We didn’t speak. What was there to say?

Down in the vestibule I pulled on a thick, braided yellow rope and nothing happened. Father McCarron smiled and said to give it another try. I put my back into it, bending my knees, giving it a strong pull as the bell sang out. I had to let the rope slip through my hands or it would’ve pulled me off the floor.

In a corner of the vestibule was the thin, white rope of the funeral bell. It was easier to pull. I felt the deep tone of the bell tolling high above running through the rope into my hands.