Tuesday, January 22, 2008
Church bells touch lives
MONONGAHELA, Pa. – Michael Milinovich was standing outside City Hall in Monongahela in 1982 pondering a career change after completing yet another boring municipal audit.
Then he noticed the melody from the set of bells that chime on the quarter hour across the street in the belfry at First United Methodist Church, and they inspired him to change his life.
It was his first calling to the ministry.
Milinovich joined the seminary and was briefly appointed to a Methodist church in nearby West Newton before fate sent him back to lead the Monongahela congregation that worships in the century-old building with those bells.
“You can’t make that story up,” he said. “It’s unbelievable how those bells play into people’s lives.”
The bells, 11 in all, were a gift from lumber mill owner Charles E. Stephens in 1925, when there were many wealthy residents of the small city hugging the Monongahela River, said Jim Barnhart, the church’s historian.
The bells weigh between 525 and 3,000 pounds each, and contain 80 percent copper and 20 percent tin. They were manufactured by McShane Bell Foundry of Glen Burnie, Md., a company that now charges $22,000 for just one bell. No other church in Southwestern Pennsylvania can boast such a collection except First Baptist Church of Pittsburgh, which owns 12, Milinovich said. However, the bells at First Baptist no longer chime because the system malfunctioned, a church spokesman said.
The set cost Stephens an estimated $200,000, Barnhart said, as part of badly needed renovations to the building at the time. The steeple had to be removed in the 1920s because of damages from a lightning strike, and the brick tower it sat atop was about to collapse.
Originally, the bells were controlled by a small keyboard behind a hidden door at the altar until the miniature organ’s keys began to stick. Then the men of the church had to run to the bell tower and pull ropes to sound the bells, which were eventually electrified in 1969, Barnhart said.
Many modern churches play recordings of bells chiming because they cannot afford the real thing, he said. Some old churches have sold their bells for the value of their copper or brass in order to keep the doors open.
“It’s a landmark,” Barnhart said of his church. “Our church cares enough to keep those bells ringing.”
But caring for the belfry can be a challenge.
While the four-story spire stands as an impressive addition to the red-brick facade, its rough interior could serve as a backdrop for a Charles Dickens play.
A door in the second-floor choir loft, above the sanctuary, opens to a few stairs and a tall chamber lit by a couple of incandescent light bulbs dangling from chains. Exposed wood support beams criss-cross the room, some of which have graffiti left behind by children. There are three more steep climbs to the top. A darker, cramped level that would send chills down the spine of a claustrophobic can be found atop a set of 33 rickety, winding steps.
Visitors are wise to step on the edges of the stairs because of the wear on the middle of the wooden planks. A third, tight set of 15 steps spiral toward a ladder and a trap door to a narrow catwalk between the bells and belfry’s bricks walls.
“It’s an experience, especially when the bells start ringing,” Barnhart said. “It sort of blows your eardrums out. You get to the see the town from a whole different view.”
Click here to watch a short film about the bells.
Reprinted from the Observer-Reporter