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Hear the Bells Ringing

H

umans have been using bells since long before the Rev. Joseph Clokey planted his Cedar of Lebanon trees on Bower Hill Road, thus giving Mt. Lebanon its name—the earliest archaeological evidence of bells can be traced by to 3,000 B.C. in China. In Catholic worship, Pope Sabinian officially sanctioned the use of church bells in 604 A.D., and tower bells became a common fixture on churches by the early Middle Ages, to call the faithful to prayer.

Fast forward to the Reformation in the 16th century. New Christian religions were dropping many of the tenets of Catholicism, yet in many cases, the tradition of tower bells endured and expanded, as new religions formed their own methods and ringing customs.

Today, church bells come in many shapes, sizes, designs and forms, and even the digitized sound of bells playing out over a neighborhood hearkens back to this ancient tradition. Here in Mt. Lebanon, our church bells serve much the same purposes as they did centuries ago—a reminder of spiritual life and a way to bring the community together in times of celebration and mourning.

From the complex to the grand to the technological, here are the bells you might be hearing while walking around the neighborhood.

 
According to the North American Guild of Change Ringers, there are only 66 change ringing towers in North America, and the nearest tower is in Frederick, Maryland. Southminster is often a destination for traveling change ringing groups visiting towers across the United States.

Southminster Presbyterian Church [1]
799 Washington Road

About the tower: The tower that houses Southminster’s bells was built in 1925, but the large square bell tower had to undergo significant reconstruction in order to support the eight-bell change ringing system that was installed in 2002. This project included building floors, a staircase and a steel framework. Two-foot-square windows were also installed at the top of the tower. Closing them helps mute the sound of the bells during rehearsals or more solemn occasions.

Change Ringing: the traditional English art of ringing a set of tower bells in an intricate series of changes, or mathematical permutations, by pulling ropes attached to bell wheels. (Encyclopedia Britannica)

Six of Southminsters bells came from St. John the Evangelist Church in Lancashire, England. Four were cast in 1814 and two in 1934. Southminster had two additional bells cast for their new tower when they acquired the set in 2000.

About the Bells: Southminster’s bells are set up for change ringing. Change ringing is an old English tradition dating back to the 16th century, involving several bells on a pulley system operated by an equivalent number of musicians pulling ropes, often many stories below. These bells are attached to wheels and must turn 360 degrees in order to produce a sound. The time between the rope being pulled and the sounding of the bell is roughly two seconds.

Southminster’s eight bells form an A flat major scale (though slightly flat) and range in weight from 476 to 1,050 pounds. They were cast in the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London—four of them were cast in 1814 and dedicated at a church in Lancashire, England, in honor of King George III’s birthday.

Each bell has an inscription of the word “peace” in two languages. Represented languages are Arabic, Cheyenne, English, French, German, Greek, Hawaiian, Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Latin, Norwegian, Russian, Spanish and Swahili. They form the “Peace Tower,” named after the benefactress of the bells, Helen Ruth Henderson, who died in 1999. They were dedicated on October 5, 2002.

“The whole activity is at the cusp of music, mathematics and sports—because it takes some strength to ring the larger bells … it’s also a fundamentally social activity, like chamber music. You can’t do it alone.” -Don Morrison, Castle Shannon Boulevard, Local Change Ringing Expert

How they work: A change ringing “peal” is not a recognizable tune—it is a mathematical sequence, changing the order of the bells each time to include all permutations of a pattern. At Southminster, all permutations of an eight-bell pattern, a “full peal,” can take about an hour, but sometimes they will use fewer bells or a “quarter peal,” which lasts 15 minutes. Learning a peal requires many hours of practice, with one person on each bell being used.

In addition to Sunday worship services, weddings, funerals and holidays, Southminster’s bells will chime for special occasions and community events, such as the Mt. Lebanon Classic Car Show and Street Festival.

Where can you hear them? Depending on weather conditions and whether or not their bells are muted, you can hear Southminster’s bells in Uptown as well as the Avondale, Clearview, Parker Gardens, Willow Terrace, Washington Park, Lebanon Hills and Mission Hills neighborhoods.

 
St. Bernard’s largest bell, named “Bernard,” is 73 inches in diameter and weighs 8,400 pounds.

St. Bernard Roman Catholic Church (St. Michael the Archangel Parish) [2]
311 Washington Road

About the tower: There are 99 steps and three small landings inside the bell tower at St. Bernard. Above the bells is a large wooden structure, accessed by two long straight ladders, which supports the outside dome and the turrets at the top of the belfry. In 2013, it was repointed, a new A-frame was built to support the bells, with a rubber roof and lightning rod system to protect the tower. Midway up the tower steps is a view of the interior of the church below, and the top of the tower provides a panoramic view of the community.

“I believe that the bells are unique for the same reason they are important. They call us to prayer … Essentially from birth to death, bells ring for us, to celebrate with us, to mourn with us, and always to call us to prayer, reminding us of God’s presence in our lives.” -The Rev. Thomas Gramc, Parochial Vicar at St. Michael the Archangel Parish

St. Bernard Church’s three peal bells were dedicated in 1947.

About the Bells: St. Bernard Church’s three bells are made of an alloy of pure copper and tin, cast in Croydon, England, at the Gillett & Johnston bell foundry. They were blessed inside the church and hoisted through an opening in the center of the dome, where they rang for the first time in August, 1947.

The largest bell, “Bernard,” is 73 inches in diameter and weighs 8,400 pounds. It was named after the church’s namesake, St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), a French theologian and abbot. The second bell, “Regis,” is 54 ½  inches in diameter and weighs 3,550 pounds. It was named after St. John Francis Regis, in honor of archbishop J. F. Regis Canevin, who was bishop of Pittsburgh when the parish was founded in 1919. The third bell, “Thomas,” is 44 inches in diameter, weighs 1,680 pounds and was named after Fr. Thomas Bryson, St. Bernard’s founding pastor.

The Angelus: A Roman Catholic devotion commemorating the Incarnation of Jesus and including the Hail Mary, said at morning, noon and sunset. (Oxford Languages)

A large wooden structure, accessed by two long straight ladders, supports the outside dome and the turrets at the top of the belfry.

How they work: The three bells are called peal bells. They swing side-to-side, tossing the sound around, which is produced when a clapper hits the inside of the bell. They are mounted on large metal frames and controlled electronically, usually rung using a small remote control with two options—peal and toll. The toll is used for funerals or to signal the death of a leader, like the pope, and the peal is used for weddings, special ceremonies like baptisms and confirmations, before Masses, and they ring the Angelus each day at 8 a.m., noon and 6 p.m.

Where can you hear them? When the weather is right, you can hear St. Bernard’s bells in the Twin Hills, Parker Gardens, Clearview, Avondale, Sunset Hills and McNeilly neighborhoods, and in Uptown.

 
Bas-relief sculptures of St. Anne and Mary adorn the front of St. Anne’s Memorial bell tower, which stands over 102 feet tall.

St. Anne Roman Catholic Church (St. Paul of the Cross Parish [3])
400 Hoodridge Drive

About the tower: The St. Anne Memorial bell tower was dedicated on Easter Sunday in 1962 and is named after Philip Murray, the first president of the United Steelworkers of America and former St. Anne parishioner. United Steelworkers provided $70,000 for the belfry, which now stands over 102 feet tall, rising from a concrete base platform to an aluminum cross on top of the structure. Bas-relief sculptures of St. Anne and Mary can be seen on the front of the tower, and a verse from the Psalms is etched into the base.

Belfry: People sometimes use the word “belfry” when referring to a bell tower, but surprisingly, the word does not derive from “bell.” Belfry comes from a medieval term for a wooden tower used in sieges, “berfrey.” (Merriam-Webster)

The bells rang out for the first time on Hoodridge Drive in 1962, but they were originally used at the old St. Anne Church on Willow Avenue in Castle Shannon.

About the Bells: The bells—heaviest of which is 1,400 pounds—came from the old St. Anne Church on Willow Avenue in Castle Shannon. They rang out for the first time in their new location in 1962, but they fell into disrepair several decades later and were silent. After two successful campaigns—the last one in 2014—the bells have been returned to their original splendor and ring once again.

“In the midst of the busyness of everyday life, when we all can get really caught up in earthly matters, the bells remind us of the spiritual side of life, and that we must tend to our souls as well as our bodies.” -The Rev. Michael Caridi, Pastor at St. Paul of the Cross Parish

How they work: The bells are controlled digitally—the sacristan rings the bells at the end of weddings and funerals as families exit the church. They also twice hourly from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m and just before Masses.

Where can you hear them? St. Anne’s is technically just over the border in Castle Shannon, but the parish of St. Paul of the Cross includes areas of Mt. Lebanon. When the weather is right, you can hear St. Anne’s bells in the Sunset Hills, Avondale, Mission Hills, Lebanon Hills, St. Clair Terrace, Seminole Hills Hoodridge and Hoodridge Highlands neighborhoods.

 

The steeple at Sunset Hills United Presbyterian church does not contain bells—it has a set of amps that connect to a digital carillon system.

Do you hear what I hear? Those are digital carillon!

Perhaps the old bell system stopped working, was too hard to maintain or got struck by lightning—a common problem for tower bells. Or maybe a parish doesn’t have the space or budget for physical bells. These are the main reasons religious organizations install digital carillon, and the sound they produce is often so close to the sound of physical bells that people can’t tell the difference. Churches with digital carillon have vast libraries of songs they can choose from for any occasion.

Carillon: A musical instrument consisting of at least 23 cast bronze bells in fixed suspension, tuned in chromatic order and capable of concordant harmony when sounded together. (Encyclopedia Britannica)

Sunset Hills United Presbyterian Church [4] (SHUP Church)
900 Country Club Drive

About the bell system: The carillon bells in the steeple at SHUP stopped working and, after many years of silence, were replaced by digital carillon six years ago. The majority of the time, this system is automatically working from a seasonal playlist of hymns, patriotic tunes and classical music, but these settings can be overridden for manual selections or to provide peals and funeral tools.

SHUP’s digital carillon play at noon and 6 p.m. daily. Each session begins with the Westminster Chimes (you know, the stereotypical grandfather clock/doorbell tune), the ringing of the hour and then 10 minutes of music from the music library.

Where can you hear them? Unsurprisingly, when the weather is right, SHUP’s digital carillon can be heard through most of Sunset Hills, but other areas that can hear the bells are the McNeilly, Avondale and Mission Hills neighborhoods.

“The music helps us say to the community ‘We’re here. Come see us if you need us. We’d love to have you come in our doors.’ It’s a thing to bind the community together and provide peace and calm, especially during this year.” -Shelby Gracey, Music Director at Sunset Hills United Presbyterian Church

Our Lady of Grace Roman Catholic Church (St. Michael the Archangel Parish [2])
310 Kane Boulevard

About the bell system: A mechanical carillon system was part of the original Our Lady of Grace Church when it opened in 1960. It was struck by lightning in the 1980s and the church was silent. The church got a digital carillon system in 2004. In addition to playing from a library of hymns at noon and 6 p.m., it rings for Mass, feast days and holidays, and tolls for funerals.

Where can you hear them? Our Lady of Grace is technically just over the border in Scott Township, but the parish of St. Michael the Archangel includes areas of Mt. Lebanon. Depending on weather conditions, you can hear Our Lady of Grace’s digital carillon in the Carleton Manor and Cedarhurst neighborhoods.

“It’s a link to a tradition that you don’t see too much anymore. The ringing of the Angelus … was very much a part of rural life for communities where the Catholic church was prominent. It’s nice to have a reminder of that.”-Kevin Trichtinger, Former Music Director, Oversaw Digital Carillon System Installation 

 
From the Author: The intent of this story is to provide answers to Mt. Lebanon residents who hear tower bells when they are walking around the neighborhood and think, “I wonder where that’s coming from?” Locally, these instances happen to be of the Christian tradition, but that does not mean that church bells are exclusive to Christianity. In Hinduism, people ring bells (“Ghanta”) upon entering a temple. In Buddhism, bell traditions go back centuries to when monks would ring massive Bonshō bells, which can still be found in temples around Japan. Bells of all shapes, sizes and sounds have been associated with worship for thousands of years—some even before the founding of Christianity.
Photos by John Schisler