Tolling of church bells carries special meaning for many; Troy once dominated the industry
For many, bells are symbolic of the holiday season — from bell choirs to songs such as “Carol of the Bells” to the large bells in church steeples that ring in the season.
For the Rev. Richard Carlino, though, church bells are a year-round obsession. Ever since he was a child, Carlino, 60, who is pastor at both St. John the Evangelist’s Church and St. Anthony’s Church in Schenectady, has had a deep love for church bells.
“It’s always been a kind of an avocation for me — I’ve visited some of the major bell chime factories, in Sellersville, Pa., and Cincinnati, Ohio, over the years,” Carlino said. “To me, the sound of a church bell reminds me of the voice of God. And it’s actually a fascination I’ve never quite understood.”
Carlino has naturally taken a special interest in both his churches’ bells — his name even adorns the largest of the three bells in the tower at St. John’s, which he initially had installed at Our Lady Queen of Peace Church in Schenectady in 1996 and had moved to St. John’s about four years ago.
But with advancing electronic technology, especially bell synthesizers such as electronic carillons, the traditional church bell has in some ways fallen by the wayside. Although many churches in Schenectady have real church bells, they are rung using electronic motors rather than a human bell ringer. And both St. John’s and St. Anthony’s have electronic carillons, which use synthesized sounds to replicate a real carillon’s 23-plus bells.
“Electronic carillons are much more affordable; however, they do not have the real — the same sound,” Carlino said. “It’s indisputable that you can never duplicate the perfect sound, the sound of a real bell — electronic chime companies get better and better at it, but it’s impossible. ... Most [churches] do have electronic systems over real bells; that’s more common. To me, personally, the ringing of church bells is an important part of the liturgical, the spiritual life of the church.”
Many made in Troy
Many of the large bells found in churches in the Capital Region, and indeed throughout the country, were actually made in Troy. From 1808 through 1952, roughly 100,000 bells were manufactured in Troy, at one of four different companies.
“They made just about every famous bell in North America except the Liberty Bell, which was made in London by Whitechapel,” said historian P. Thomas Carroll, executive director of the Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway and the RiverSpark Heritage Area.
According to Carroll, Benjamin Hanks relocated his brass and bronze foundry, originally in Connecticut, to Troy in 1808. His apprentice, Andrew Meneely, eventually settled in West Troy and started his own foundry , which eventually split into two companies. A fourth foundry, Jones & Hitchcock (later Jones & Co.), began in the 1850s but only lasted through the 1880s.
“Meneely’s was the largest producer of bells in the history of the U.S.,” Carroll said. “We now know of about 20,000 or more [Meneely] bells in the country and all over the world.”
Troy’s bell-making dominance ended in 1952 due to a number of reasons, including wartime rationing, advancing technology and competition with foreign companies.
“There were three primary reasons — one, Congress removed the import tariff on bells, so they had to compete with cheaper bells made elsewhere,” Carroll said. “Two, people started to do electronic recordings of bells, rather than have the bells themselves. ... The last thing and final nail in the coffin was that the bells were made of 78 percent copper and 22 percent tin, and during World War II you couldn’t get copper or tin. ... When the Korean War broke out, once again you couldn’t get copper and tin, so they said, ‘Forget it.’ ”
Since the 1860s, the First Reformed Church in Schenectady has had a Jones & Co. bell, one of the rarest bells to come out of Troy due to the company’s short history. In 1948, the bell survived a fire that gutted the inside of the building. When the church was rebuilt within the same walls, the bell was placed back in the tower.
“In the front, two of the walls remained — the west wall and the front wall — and enough of those walls and doorways were left to build the sixth church,” Laura Linder, the church’s historian, said. “The way it was described to me, [the bell] fell straight down and was not injured, and they were able to re-hang it in the sixth building.”
The Meneely bell in the First United Methodist Church in Schenectady has been in the tower since the building was first constructed in 1872. In 1958, the bell was fixed to an electric motor, but the motor has been broken for close to a year and will cost at least $7,000 to repair, according to church custodian Martin Manley.
“We’re not ringing it — I’ve jokingly told people that I would send a court-referred volunteer up there with a sledgehammer to ring it, but that’s not actually going to happen,” Manley said. “It’s just old technology. Because it was installed so long ago, it’s just worn out over time, and unless we’re willing to spend $7,000 to replace it, it’s not going to work for us. The church has enough other things going on financially that repairing the bell is not a top priority.”
St. Anthony’s has two bells, made by the Stuckstede company in St. Louis. The larger of the two was installed in the early 1920s, while the second one was found about two years ago. Carlino, who was pastor at St. Anthony’s from 1989 through 1996 and again from 2008 to the present, had the bells fitted with motors in the 1990s.
“There’s a computer clock, and we program it to ring at different times — also, it both swings and there’s a striker on it, to get different sounds,” Carlino said. “Then, about two years ago, three parishioners donated money to have a second bell brought in, and we had to search the country to find it. ... It’s better to have the same bell from the same foundry ring with another; it’s better not to mix up the companies, for the sound. We’d like to have a third bell that would match the first two, but we’re having problems finding one in the country, so it’s an ongoing search.”
St. John’s has three, one of which is a Meneely cast in 1926. The other two are from a company called Eisbotts. The notes of the bells are G, B and D, which create the “American peal” when played together.
The Meneely bell was brought to St. John’s from the Holy Cross Church in the Stockade when it closed about three years ago. The second Eisbott bell was purchased a few years ago.
The church also has another bell system currently not in operation, the Deagan chimes.
“Deagan bells can do everything the real bells do, but they are bars, not swinging bells,” Carlino said. “But they have a deep, far-reaching sound when they ring — it can be heard from many blocks away.”
In the past, church bells saw far more use than they do today.
“Historically it has special rings — back in history they would ring it as church was about to be over, so the people at home, the slaves or workers or whoever, knew that church was over and it was time to get food ready,” Linder said. “That’s a folk-tale type of thing, but it’s true. Of course it announces weddings, deaths, other events.”
Now, the bell in the First Reformed Church rings the time, although it shuts off between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. The bell is also still used to ring in special occasions such as weddings and holidays, including Christmas.
Similarly, the bells at St. John’s and St. Anthony’s ring on the hour, as well as at weddings, funerals and church services. The carillons are also programmed with different music depending on the season, including Christmas carols during the holidays.
“A lot of that is the changing nature of the layout of the church, too, the way ministers do things,” Linder said. “But it used to be more convenient for people to ring it; now people don’t think of it anymore.
“A tradition is only a tradition as long as it’s maintained, and it takes people to remember to maintain it,” Linder continued. “My children are grown, but I think that it’s something for Sunday school, or people in the church, to take the youth to see where the bell is rung and teach them about the bell.”