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The bells of Saint Mary’s

Workmen pose with the bells at the McShane Bell Foundry Company in Baltimore, Md. The bells were placed in the tower of the Church of the Immaculate Conception in 1910. (Photo courtesy of Sisters of Providence Archives)

Today, with so many electronic gadgets to keep us plugged into the world around us and calendared to the last second, it’s impossible to imagine, or even remember, a day when bells once told us the time of day. At one time, bells told us when to wake, when to turn out the lights and even when to pray. They also tolled to tell us when someone died. And on Sundays, holidays and feast days, the sounds of hymns played on the chimes in the big church tower filled the air.

This is exactly what it was like at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods for many years. And part of this scenario is still played out today.

The church bells

According to the Handbook published in 1937 for Sisters of Providence, “The bells are chimes in the strict sense of the word — the 11 bells being played by means of large wooden handles which are de­pressed to the depth of a foot or more, thus pulling the chain connected with the clapper of the bell.”

Many Sisters of Providence have memories of playing these bells, which are tuned to the key of D. They include a sharp fourth, flat seventh and one tone above the octave.

“The G-sharp had a big red bow on it so we wouldn’t hit it if we were playing in the key of C,” reminisced Sister Joan Klega, who played the chimes in 1951.

Sister Joan explained that the chimes were played for about 15 minutes on Sundays, feast days and holidays. At least three sisters went up to play the chimes.

“Sometimes you would go for a lever [handle] and it would not go down all the way, so we would skip the note! There were — what should we say — bloopers!” said Sister Joan.

“Sometimes we’d play together for harmony. If we were lucky, they [the bells] would not go ‘ta da’ when playing!” continued Sister Joan.

“Rarely could we make them ring together,” said Sister Regina Marie McIntyre, who played the chimes as a novice in 1950-’51.

Bell ringers

In addition to those sisters who played the chimes, there were sisters who were bell ringers either in the church or in Providence Hall.

“In my novitiate days, everything the community did happened according to the exact time on the clock,” shared Sister Ann Casper

“One day I overslept, missing the rising bell and causing the entire novitiate and professed community living at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods to be late for everything!” continued Sister Ann.

“For some obscure reason, only tall novices were selected for the task [of ringing the bells]. Once you had the bell going, you had to hang on to the ropes firmly; otherwise you could be swept off your feet — literally,” said Sister Alexa Suelzer, who was a bell ringer during her novitiate in 1938-’40.

Today’s bells

The chimes still play from the bell tower, and the toll for a deceased sister now emanates from this place. But gone are the bells indicating when to rise, pray and retire. Computerization has removed the physical aspect of playing the chimes and bells, but it’s that technology that has preserved the richness and sacredness of those 11 bells for generations to come.

Fast facts:

  • The 11 bells in the tower of the Church of the Immaculate Conception have a total weight of 13,150 pounds.
  • Each bell has been engraved with a name. The names and corres­ponding keyboard notes are: Holy Family (D), Anne Joachim (E), John Elizabeth (F#), Peter Paul (G), Francis Theodore (G#), Ignatius Paschal (A), The Angelic Choirs (B), Theresa Agatha (C), Clara Gertrude (C#), Clement Mar­garet (D) and Agnes Philomene (E).

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Connie McCammon

Connie McCammon wrote for the Sisters of Providence Office of Congregational Advancement.

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