I have always loved the sound of church bells. In the olden days when I was a child, we often heard some kind of bell from towers and steeples. We even heard the organs.
No more. Not so much.
One reason is the cost. Steeples and towers and bells require a financial investment to maintain them that is often cost-prohibitive today. Additionally, there aren’t many men going into the profession of steeplejack these days.
Atop the tiny, white-columned 1842 church where Glen Likens was baptized, where he married his wife, where their children were baptized, where they still worship on Sundays, the steeple is rotting. St. Mark’s Episcopal in Wadsworth, Ohio, hasn’t dared sound the 2,000-pound bell, which has a broken carriage and patched hammer, for a year. It may not sound again — unless a congregation numbering 58 souls in a good week can come up with $30,000.
“It’s no easy amount to raise. We absolutely considered taking it off and capping the roof, but voices within the congregation want their bell, their tower. It’s symbolic. It’s part of our church. We want it to be there for our children’s future,” says Likens, who volunteers as St. Mark’s junior warden in charge of maintenance.
Nationwide, church steeples are taking a beating and the bell tolls for bell towers, too, as these landmarks of faith on the landscape are hard hit by economic, social and religious change.
Steeplejacks, specialists in clambering up to build or repair the soaring structures, see weather-struck, maintenance-deprived steeples chipped, leaking, even tilting. Architects and church planners see today’s new congregations meet in retooled sports arenas or shopping malls or modern buildings designed to appeal to contemporary believers turned off by the look of old-time religion.
Steeples may have outlived their times as signposts. People hunting for a church don’t scan the horizon, they search the Internet. Google reports searches for “churches” soar before Easter each year.
St. Mark’s, which has no website, has never needed to tell the 22,000 people in Wadsworth where it was because, Likens says, “everyone in town knows this is the church with the bell tower.”
Caption photo below: This New England Historic church’s cupola was removed for repair and returned atop the church. It was an lengthy, expensive, and delicate process.
Here is James A. Regester writing about in the Introduction to his 1908 book The Worship of the Church of the history of church buildings.
Churches are designed they way they are for a reason.”As soon as the early Christians were at liberty to build churches according to their own mind, they took pains to make them significant of their religion. Probably at first the Christians took for the purposes of their worship such buildings as they could get, adapting them to their uses as best they might. But when they grew strong enough and independent enough to build as the heart and imagination dictated, then they showed themselves careful to make their houses of God in shape and dimension suggestive of what they believed.” These old builders were Churchmen, and made their Churchmanship and their belief felt in their work.
In this essay on The History of Church Steeples, we read about bells:
Some steeples were used to house the bronze or steel church bell, and that section of the steeple is called the belfry. This area of the steeple would have louvers to emit the sound of the bell on all sides of the steeple, with louver blades tilted downward to help keep out rain. Bells were located in steeples, as this was the highest place on the church; this height helped the sound to travel a farther distance, floating out over the community. The bells were used as a call to worship, to ring the time of day in the community, as a wedding peal, and as a solemn funeral toll to mark the passing of a cherished member. This is why you still see louvers in the midsection of modern steeples even though they may not have a tradition bronze bell. Some churches have replaced the traditional bell with the more versatile electronic carillons that can digitally recreate the sounds of cast bells, played as hymns, angelus, pealing bells and funeral tolls. The louvers also aid in ventilation of the steeple, which extends the durability of the exterior finishes.
I believe a church should look like a church, and that means a steeple and even a bell if possible. I know I’m a dwindling minority. Here is James A. Regester again writing about the history of church buildings in his 1908 book The Worship of the Church. The following about the church bells is from his chapter Symbolism of the Church Building
In the tower are the bells, and what the spire with its uplifted Cross says to us in silent eloquence these say in sound and music.
The office of the bell in calling to prayer and holy worship was regarded in olden time with much reverence. The use of bells for the purpose of gathering people together in large numbers appears to be of Christian origin. “Large bells hung in a tower seem to have been unknown before A.D.500. They were first made in Campania in Italy, whence the Italian name campana, a bell, and campanile, a bell-tower.
“Bells in the middle ages were sometimes dedicated to saints. They were christened with all the usual ceremonies and with much pomp; sponsors were provided, the bell was sprinkled at the font, anointed with oil, and robed in a chrisom. Superstitious as these customs would seem now, there is something fine in the simple faith which thus, in those more poetic days, consecrated to God’s service the voices which should proclaim Him far and wide over the land.” In simpler form, the custom is still frequently observed of setting apart by solemn prayer and benediction the bells which are to call men to prayer or to ring out the praises of God.
Church bells are frequently marked by appropriate inscriptions. The following, for instance, was very common in the middle ages, all these powers being attributed to bells:
“Funera plango, Fulgura trango, Sabbata pango,
Excito lentos, Dissipo ventos, Paco cruentos.”
“I mourn the dead, I break the lightning, I announce the Sabbath, I excite the slothful, I disperse the winds, I appease the cruel.”
Here are a couple of campanile photos I took while in Italy
|Florence, Italy bell tower|
If you are interested in Ecclesiastical Architecture as I am, which I have written about a few times before, here is a good series from The Christian Pundit about how and why churches and their interiors look as they do.
Ecclesiastical Architecture (1) Introduction
Ecclesiastical Architecture (2) Pulpits
Ecclesiastical Architecture (3) Sacraments
Ecclesiastical Architecture (4) Baptismal Fonts
Ecclesiastical Architecture (5) Music
Ecclesiastical Architecture (6) Lighting
Ecclesiastical Architecture (7) Pews
Ecclesiastical Architecture (8) Conclusion