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Fred Martin Jr., a member of First United Methodist Church in Athens, purchased and donated three bells and the sound system to go with it for the church. The bells toll every hour. Martin runs the church’s system, which will be getting an update for the first time in 10 years. Roughly 100 songs can be programmed into the new system, which can be set to play at any time in any intervals.
Bells strike a chord
Some local churches go digital for tunes
By Danielle Komis
Ding-dong, ding-dong! The joyful ringing of church bells greets many North Alabamians as they prepare for work in the morning or sit down to dinner in the evening.
Local churches still ring the nostalgic church bells, even though the need for bells ended long ago with the advent of timepieces.
The three bells in First United Methodist Church’s belfry have rung every hour, at least for the last 10 years when lifetime member Fred Martin Jr. donated them.
Martin — an avid traveler who has visited every continent in the world and heard the peal of church bells in many of them — is passionate about church bells.
When he heard his church planned to build a bell tower during renovations in 1996, he jumped at the opportunity to help and bought three bells from a southeastern French bell foundry that were specifically designed for the church’s new belfry.
Today, many Athens residents are accustomed to hearing bells chime on the hour, as well as the sounds of church hymns at 12:15 p.m. played by the church’s automated carillon system. The system’s speakers are on the dome of the church, and its music can be heard from up to two miles away.
Martin always wanted to do something for his community and enjoyed the sounds of church bells on his travels. So when the church built a belfry, but had no bells to fill it with, he knew what he would do to help.
“I said ‘That’s it! That’s the thing we could give to our community,’ ” he said.
Martin bought three bells from the Paccard foundry in France that would fit in the 50-foot church belfry and named them Faith, Hope and Love. Each bell is inscribed with a Bible verse from the New Testament.
The largest of the three bells weighs 700 pounds and the smallest weighs 215 pounds. The bells are immobile and are rung with two electronically controlled strikers inside them.
“Instead of you having to pull a rope, you have computers,” Martin said.
Just down the street in downtown Athens, First Presbyterian Church also still manually rings its 150-year-old bell, but usually only as a call to worship on Sundays or for special occasions. Acolytes typically ring the bell 11 times for the 11 a.m. service.
The bell, which survived the Civil War and a fire, is the only relic left of the original church. A simple rope and pulley in the back of the sanctuary control it. The bell was made by William K. Bell Foundry in Louisville, Ky.
“You’d never know it was here,” said associate pastor Jaina Anderson, marveling at the small rope that makes it possible for such a large sound to ring from the bell tower.
The church opened its doors to visitors of Athens’ “Art on the Square” event in September and let people ring the bell. Anderson said the event was a hit.
Like First Presbyterian, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Decatur also manually rings its church bell as a call to worship each Sunday. Church elders usually ring the bell before and after service, or for weddings, funerals and other special events.
Douglas Kurz, a lifelong member of St. Paul’s and a church elder, said the bell moved with the church in the late 1960s from its former location on Sherman Street to its current location on Carridale Street Southwest. He estimated the bell is at least 100 years old.
Last year, Kurz rang the bell 36 times at the funeral for the late Pastor Ron Reinhardt, signifying the number of years Reinhardt was the pastor of St. Paul’s before he died.
Along with classic bells, many local churches also have adopted modern automated carillon systems that play through speakers in empty belfries or from church rooftops.
First United Methodist Church’s carillon system will be updated for the first time in 10 years. Roughly 100 songs can be programmed into the new system, which can be set to play at any time in any intervals, Martin said. When the church’s carillon system plays at noon, it plays for 12 minutes and usually fits in about eight songs because only the first verse of each song is played, Martin said.
An electronic carillon system plays hymns or seasonal religious music at 12:15 p.m. every day at First United Methodist Church in Athens.
The church usually programs the system to play popular hymns, except for special times of the church year such as Christmas or Easter.
Westminster Presbyterian Church in the Albany district of Decatur also has an automated carillon system, but no bells. The church raised money a few years ago to buy the system, which cost several thousand dollars, said David Nebrig, a lifetime member of the church.
The speakers for the system are in the otherwise empty belfry.
“It used to be that all your churches had bells,” Martin said. “Now, a lot of people don’t have the bells, they just have the carillon system.”
Westminster’s system plays hymns at 9 a.m., noon and 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The church also plays Christmas music during the Historic Decatur Christmas Tour of Homes.
Pastor Jimmy Bassham of First United Methodist said that while church bells were once in every church, today’s new churches rarely have them
“It was once very popular,” he said. “We’re one of the few around here who continue it.”
Perhaps because the chimes are so unusual, people often comment on how much they enjoy the sounds, he said.
“I continually have people who say how much it means to them,” he said. “It’s a great ministry.”
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