Cathedral's bells are ringing out once more

For whom do they toll? Anyone in downtown St. Petersburg listening from morn till dark.

Published October 14, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG — For Christians, church bells are calls to prayer and worship and tell of sorrow and joy. But at the mother church of Tampa Bay’s Episcopalians, the bells have been silent for 30 years.

At least until last Sunday, when the sound of bells were heard again at St. Peter’s Episcopal Cathedral.

While the sonorous tones might have conjured up images of quaint English churches — swinging bells and bell ringers pulling ropes — the traditional sounds emanating from St. Peter’s were actually compliments of a digital carillon. The system’s repertoire includes digital samplings of Westminster chimes, like those struck by London’s Big Ben, hymns by the hundreds and patriotic songs from the Star-Spangled Banner to Yankee Doodle Dandy.

In a few weeks, St. Peter’s will have live chimes, too. Installed in the cathedral’s bell tower in 1926 and recently refurbished, the chimes will be rung using the same control system used for the digital bells.

Paul Meeker, the cathedral’s senior warden, sees the bells – live or recorded – fulfilling an important role in the city’s downtown. “It’s making people aware that we are here. That God is here,’’ he said of the historic Gothic Revival cathedral at 140 Fourth St. N.

“The bells are set to start ringing at 9 every morning and the last would be at 6 in the evening. We’re trying to respect the neighbors,’’ Meeker said.

In downtown, the cathedral’s bells will join those of First United Methodist and St. Mary Our Lady of Grace in a custom that’s centuries old. It’s a significance not lost on Marion Smith, director of music ministries at First United Methodist Church. “It’s so wonderful having so much tradition in the heart of all the modernism downtown,’’ he said.

At St. Mary’s, when Pope John Paul  II died, Jim Kochen, the church’s liturgist and sacristan, tolled the bells for every year of the octogenarian’s life and for every year of his papacy. The church has a computerized carillon system, but Kochen had to toll the bells manually, pressing a button for each year.

St. Mary’s also rings its bells for the Angelus, a prayer that is said three times a day, and plays hymns before the 12:10 p.m. daily Mass and Sunday Masses. Seasonal hymns can be heard at Easter and Christmas. Kochen, who lives at Bayfront Tower, blocks away from the church at 515 Fourth St. N, said he can hear the carillon system from his balcony. It’s recently been silent, because the church’s roof is being repaired. Kochen said they should ring again this week.

There are real bells at First United Methodist Church, 212 Third St. N. The first 10 were hung in 1929 and were rung using a pulley system. In the 1960s, the system was modernized to allow them to be played with an electronic keyboard, said Smith, who also is professor of music and director of choral ensembles at Eckerd College. Six additional bells have been added over the years, he said, and a computer system operates them all. The bells are rung every quarter hour and chime the hours between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. They are programmed to play hymns at 12:20 p.m., but technical problems have put a temporary stop to that. The bells also ring on Sundays to announce the 11 a.m. traditional service and are used for weddings and funerals.

Last Sunday, St. Peter’s congregation stood outside and cheered for the inaugural recital of their digital carillon. “We’re pretty excited,’’ said the Very Rev. Russell Johnson, dean of the cathedral. Besides telling the hours and calling people to worship, the new carillon system and refurbished chimes will play hymns 15 minutes before services.

The 86-year-old chimes had not worked for 30 years. The Verdin Co., a 160-year-old family-owned Cincinnati firm, replaced the hangers that secure them and installed new strikers.  Company records show that the chimes were purchased by a Fred Little in January 1926 from funds donated by Mrs. A. C. Pheil, widow of an early mayor of St. Petersburg. They range in size from about 5 to 20 feet and originally were played from a small keyboard in the cathedral. A donation of $250,000 enabled the church to refurbish the chimes, buy the new carillon system and set some money aside to refurbish the cathedral’s organ, Meeker said. He added that the church also has restored its one real bell, a 42-inch cast-bronze that will be used during the Eucharist, at funerals and in combination with the other bells.