We see them jutting skyward above the churches in our city. Their music garners no applause. Some tell time, many ring, others do both.
I love a good bell tower! And I love bells. Louisville is somewhat of a metropolitan music box, maintaining over 80 active towers.
Bells are cast iron and brass messengers cradled in wood and steel. They convey hope, lament, victories, or just the time of day. They’ve sent many a tardy parishioner scurrying up the steps, and countless couples through waves of rice and well-wishers on their way down.
The sound of the bells is not to be outdone by the clamor of traffic and piercing sirens below. And though soul stirring to many, they may annoy a few.
As a kid, I had this image of a short, round, brown-robed monk being hoisted by a rope tied to a swinging bell, his sandals coming off the ground with each gong.
That’s not so much the case these days. With the technology of electromagnetic strikes, bell controllers and swing motors, no one has to do a thing but listen.
My church, Advent Episcopal, has a single bell in its 1887 belfry, pulled by a rope for Sunday morning services. Recent weddings had the newly betrothed taking a turn on the bell pull, and the bell rang in the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech along with national congregations.
Before telegraphs, phones, and certainly pre-dating Twitter, the iron clapper was the instrument of mass communication for centuries. In the late 19th century, bell foundries thrived as an industry and Louisville was a key player.
The Kaye foundry, located at Second and Water streets, was started by William Kaye in 1841. Kaye was Louisville’s mayor from 1863-1865. He and his son, Samuel, cast bells for churches, courthouses, plantations, steamboats and other enterprises until the company closed in1895. Kaye’s obituary stated, “There are few cities in the United States where the Kaye bell is not known.” Remember Kaye when you hear the ringing atop the Cathedral of the Assumption – his name is on that bell, as well as the 2,000-pound bell at the Broadway entrance to Cave Hill Cemetery where Kaye is buried.
The bells of the St. James tower sealed the deal when renting my Highlands apartment. The tower of glowing, butterscotch bricks greets me every morning, as do its comforting bells on the Sabbath. December 21 marks the 100th anniversary of the church, and the bell has been keeping time for that long as well.
This time of year, bells are the instrument of choice; and it’s the only time of year we acknowledge “Jingle Bells.”
Per the Gospels, there were no bells for Mary and Joseph; the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem summoned only a drummer – although a lowing cow may have had a bell.
If Zuzu was right in “It's a Wonderful Life,” there are more angels than we realize up there. "Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings." Clarence is in good company…company we all miss as the rituals of the end of the year are celebrated.
The bell tolls. And for whom? All of us. If you can hear it, the message is yours.