By Robert Garrels
No matter where you walk in central Big Rapids at noon or 6 p.m., you’re bound to hear hymns playing and the hour chiming. In the past year, new bell sounds have been added to the beautiful mix. Immanuel Lutheran and St. Andrew’s Episcopal churches have purchased new bell systems.
Bells in places of worship have a long tradition. Two millennia ago bells ringing in ancient Asian temples complemented worship and called citizens to temple activities. During the Middle Ages bells began appearing in churches in Europe. Because these buildings were usually near the center of the town, the bells called people to worship and community events, announced weddings and funerals, and warned the citizens of danger from nature or invaders.
If you stand at just the right place on Woodward, it is possible to hear the gentle sounds from both the Lutheran and Episcopal bell towers at the same time.
Immanuel Lutheran congregation, now located on Fuller Ave., was established in 1874. Three bells, very visible, hang in the church’s new bell tower at the foot of the driveway. One bell, installed in 1904, is from the old Emanuel Swedish Lutheran steeple. Another, dedicated in 1899, is from the former St. Ansgars Danish Lutheran Church at 906 Olaf. The third bell, a memorial to Harold Egner, was donated to Immanuel in 1975 by his family, long time members of the congregation.
When Immanuel was located on Linden Street in the building now housing the Salvation Army, these bells hung in a tower near the church building. They were rung by an elaborate mechanical system of brass wheels, cogs, connections, and springs. They often needed repair and, after every power failure, needed resetting.
The new system installed by Verdin Bell Company, is digitized. The original bells ring out the hour from 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. daily. The digital carillon plays hymns weekdays at noon and 6 p.m., and calls people to worship at 9:15 on Sunday mornings.
St. Andrew’s Episcopal congregation, at the corner of Locust and State, organized in 1870. Hymns sound out at noon and 6 p.m., and the hours are chimed by the digitized system recently installed by Shulmerich Bell Co. Music played on the keyboard in the sanctuary may be heard inside and outside; if you pass by the church at 10:15 on a Sunday morning, you’ll hear a phrase or two of the opening hymn.
Other churches in town host bells. Both buildings of the St. Mary-St Paul Catholic parish have bell towers.
St. Mary’s digitized system was installed by the Verdin Bell Co. Hymns are played at noon and 6 p.m. during the week. The original bell, which can be seen in the tower, rings at the same times. It also rings before each mass on the weekend. This bell was purchased by Father H. M. Schaeken, pastor of St. Mary’s Church, in 1874.
In the tower of St. Paul Catholic Church hang three real bells, which are rung electronically at noon and 6 p.m. daily, and before each mass.
St. Peter’s Lutheran Church houses a 1250 pound bell in its tower. This bell was specifically cast for the congregation in 1903 at a cost of $350. The bell is sounded electronically before each worship service.
A bell tower is part of the music building on the Ferris State University campus. Its digitized system was installed by the Shulmerich Bell Co. in the early 1990s.
Like that of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Ferris’s old system was mechanical and fragile, according to Don Flickinger, who was part of the music faculty at the time. Due to broken parts and other malfunctions, the music began missing notes in songs played out over the campus. When replacement parts were no longer available, Flickinger, with other faculty and administrators, raised the necessary funds for a new system.
Across campus, songs can be heard at noon and at 6 p.m. The hours are chimed from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. The interior carillon keyboard is used occasionally for outdoor concerts.
Hearing these wonderful sounds floating across our town should convince any listener of what most of us know already—Big Rapids is a heavenly place to live!