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From whom the bells toll at Arlington Street Church

Posted by Christina Jedra  May 8, 2013 12:04 PM

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Photo: Jun Tsuboike, BU News Service

It was a moment of solace, silence stitched in reflection. Whispers of ticking chimes from stationary clocks filled the air. Gentle brushes of city-traffic echoed through the cracks of rugged church tower walls. Throngs of figurine-like people circled the diameter of the towers wedged throughout the state and at the churches nearest the Boston Marathon bombing site as clergymen rang bells in tribute to those wounded at the finish line exactly one week earlier. 

“It resonated with the moment,” said Brian Phillips, a Berklee College of Music student who listened to the tolls and hymnals that reached the Boston Common on April 22. “While I am reflecting in this place of solitude, I just have this beautiful music in the background.” 

Since the 5th century, tower bells have rang in signal. In the beginning they were used to alert people of danger and later became reminders to congregate for praise and worship. This European ideal has now become a symbol of celebration and public display of sympathy. 

Arlington Street Church is one of a handful of religious institutions in Boston still with tower bell capabilities. When then church member — and now reverend — George Whitehouse restored the bells in 1961, enlistment in ringers went rampant, he said. Now, this enduring legacy of bell ringing nears obsolescence; getting younger people to join the ranks has become a challenge. 
Every Sunday at 10 a.m., Reverend Whitehouse musters the strength to reject the plethora of jolts, cramps, and aches that his 75-year-old body summons in an effort to halt plans of reaching the 190-foot steeple. Dust and sheets of cobwebs blanket the self-taught musician as he climbs up the dark and narrow wooden steps to greet 16 bells. 

“It sounds like you are just playing a tune, but it is really an art form,” Whitehouse said. 

More than half a century ago, the Cambridge native was dropped off at the doorsteps of the Arlington Street Church by his grandmother. Little did she know, curiosity would lead the 9-year-old foster child to find a home at the top of thetower.

For nearly two decades, the steeple bells in the historic Unitarian church had stood dormant. With the assistance of his college roommate at MIT, where he audited classes, Whitehouse fixed the bells by changing the ropes to have an “elastic feel.” This project took over two years to complete. Often described as a “musical genius,” Whitehouse practiced in secret using hand bells and placing sound stoppers on the larger bells to get familiar with the ropes.
On Christmas in 1961, the 100th birthday of the church, Whitehouse surprised all throughout the congregation and community with an erupting sound that now echoes to the state house and neighbors the Common. 

“After a while people forgot that we were up there constantly,” said Whitehouse, who became a reverend in 1969 after graduating from Harvard’s Divinity School, following stints in the air force and as a research chemist. “But then on that early morning, they heard the sound.” 

Whitehouse has assimilated a numbers system written above scrolls of various hymns and patriotic songs making it easier for future bell ringers to join without formal training. He said he has never learned how to read music. 

“The beauty of the numbers is that you can play at different scales,” Whitehouse said. “It gets to be simple.”

Eighty-five-year-old Beacon Hill resident Mary-O’Kane has played the bells at the church for over 30 years under the instruction of Whitehouse. 

“George has a lot of panache,” O’Kane said. “Maybe it’s his beard.”

Her sturdiness has become a boost of encouragement driving others to explore this instrument of music. Although she admitted to making mistakes at times, O’Kanesaid she finds the experience rewarding. 

“A bell ringer just goes up there, doesn’t care who throws him or her out, and says ‘Get out of my way,”’ said O’Kane.    

A Boston native, O’Kane can recall the dismay of not having the bells play in celebration after World War II. “What a drought!”  O’Kane said. “The soldiers were marching the streets with no music from above.”

Although she consistently rebels against doctors’ orders through bell ringing involvement,O’Kanesaid she hopes younger generations will find interest. 

“It’s weird, strange, and there is no other place in the world,” said O’Kane, who said she has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, various forms of arthritis, and osteoporosis. 

She admitted that her strength to climb hundreds of perilous steps has declined over the years. Yet, even with its winter frost and drenching summer heat O’Kane continues to make strides to play. 

“Although at times you are all alone in the dark and cold, ringing bells make you feel warm,” O’Kane said. “You have to want to do it. ” 

Dr. James Bryant, 46, a professor at University of Texas at Austin, said he believes that enthusiasm for bell ringing is shifting because utility has changed. 

“In the old days it was a way to signal people to go to church, amongst other things. In that respect it’s already obsolete because people have clocks and the advent of social media nowadays,” Bryant said. 

Originally from England, Bryant learned to ring at the age of 11. “It wasn’t a musical thing,” said Bryant. “It was a social event.”

The biological scientist said he is not surprised by the downward shift in tower bell presence globally. Tower bell creators are on the decline; only two bell foundries still exist in Europe, according to Bryant.The emergence of electronic mimics of bell sounds is another key to tower bell decline. 

Bryant also attributed this trend to a decline in church attendance and the necessary upkeep for the bells. 

“Tower bells are fairly heavy, so it relies on a church having those assets,” said Bryant. “A lot of churches don’t have the assets to pay for necessary fixes.”  

Campanology expert Griff Gall, who studies bells, said Boston stands as an outlier because there are so many towers here compared to other cities in the northeast. “Tower bell presence is still very strong in Boston,” said Gall, who is also a music specialist at Danvers Public Schools. 

But, generally, Gall saidtower ringing is not as popular in the United States in comparison to Europe due to the lack of towers.  

Founder of hand bell troupe, Back Bay Ringers, Gall said he seeks ways to encourage younger participants to come to the Boston area. “In order to develop artistry in any instrument, including tower bells, it takes a lot of dedication,” Gall said. 

In contrast to tower bells, which usually work on a rope system and have permanent placement, hand bells are transportable and have become less associated with religion over time. 

“It’s a different art form,” Gall explained. 

Reverend Whitehouse said he hopes that the beauty of tower bell ringing will attract the interest of others. 

“I welcome everyone,” said Whitehouse. “I won’t turn away anyone who’s interested.”

As churches with tower bell capabilities turn to less human powered ringing, Whitehouse stands in protest. “As long as I am here we will not use that electric method,” he said. 

By offering tours of the bell tower and venturing to play secular music on weekdays, Whitehouse and other ringers said they hope people with an interest will join to keep the tradition alive. 

“Each bell gives off thousands of vibrations, different from any other instrument,” said O’Kane. “You get intimately connected, and that is really hard to give up.” 

This article is being published under a partnership between The Boston Globe and Boston University.

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