Originally created 09/02/01

Tradition meets technology



Four o'clock strikes, and the Westminster Chimes sound from atop the bell tower at St. Paul's Episcopal Church on Reynolds Street.

But the largest bell, surrounded by 10 smaller ones, doesn't swing back and forth as it did more than 75 years ago. An automated system with an electronic striker rings the bells at St. Paul's and most other area churches.

Some say a little is lost in the process.

"There's nothing more beautiful than a bell that's swinging back and forth in a tower," said Keith E. Shafer, the director of music at St. Paul's.

Because of convenience and safety, most area churches have switched to automated systems.

The Church of the Most Holy Trinity on Telfair Street used a long rope to ring its bell until about two years ago, said Debbie Young, an office administrator.

That's when they realized the bell was sinking in the tower and an electronic striker would be safer.

"We were afraid it would ring out of the tower," Ms. Young said.

Harry van Bergen's family-owned business has been making bells since the 1800s. He said bells continue to play as big a role in church life as they did hundreds of years ago. Two area churches are continuing the tradition and adding bells to existing collections.

St. Paul's is adding three, which will bring its total to 14. The bells are scheduled to arrive from Charleston, S.C., next week.

The day the crane parks in front of the church to hoist the bells into the tower will be a special one, Mr. Shafer said. This is the first time bells have been added to the tower since it was built.

The church burned in 1916, but the original bell was rescued, melted down and added to the mold when the present 11 bells were cast in 1923, Mr. Shafer said.

The church used ropes to ring the bells until the 1950s, when the system was wired for electricity.

An early computer was added in the 1980s, and the present Van Bergen system, installed three years ago, uses fiber optic cables to transmit the signal to the electric striker.

"We lost the expressive quality, but it gave us flexibility in how bells can be heard," Mr. Shafer said.

Covenant Presbyterian Church on Walton Way is adding five bells Tuesday to bring its total to 34. The church's music director, Roy J. Holton, said the church has been adding to the collection during the past 10 years thanks to a benefactor.

Covenant's bells have been on an electronic system from the beginning - a convenience for the church.

"With the electronics, I can program the bells and change the music to fit the season," Mr. Holton said.

Unlike St. Paul's and Covenant, which have many bells in their towers, Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church in North Augusta has a single bell rung by an automated system. What's unique about the bell is its history.

Father Sandy McDonald said the bell was reinstalled a year and a half ago after sitting on the ground for 25 years when the church moved.

"The dream was someday to build a new church, and the hope was to reutilize the bell," Father McDonald said.

The bell was given to the church in 1946 by the widow of a soldier who died during World War II.

When the new church was built, it didn't have a tower. A man who used to ring the bell regularly when it was on the ground died in 1995, and his family donated money to have a tower constructed.

The bell was placed in the tower, and rung for the first time at midnight Jan. 1, 2000.

"It was great with the fireworks in the background and the bell ringing," Father McDonald said.

When the bell was reinstalled in the tower, Father McDonald said the church decided to have it automated so it could be used as a clock in addition to a call to worship.

"Bells in a sense add a sacred atmosphere in terms of the sound it creates," Father McDonald said. "We wanted to make sure that it became part of the life of the parish and the school."

Staff Writer Jennifer Hilliard contributed to this report.