Rebecca Jorgenson Sundquist stepped out of Central Lutheran Church just as the massive bells in the church tower overhead started pealing, as they do every Sunday. The resounding clangs echoed off the surrounding buildings in downtown Minneapolis, then bounced back at the church, forcing her to raise her voice to a near shout.
She didn't mind a bit.
"This is what we worked for," she said.
She's working still — to bring the same experience to other churches.
Sundquist is the driving force behind City of Bells, a nondenominational team of bell lovers who are determined to revive church bells that have fallen into disrepair or disuse. Their hope is to have every church bell tower in the Twin Cities be fully functional — and, when that happens, to have all of them ring in unison.
Granted, that day is likely a long ways off, and they know it. But that doesn't dampen their resolve.
"We keep adding to the team," said Marion Hall, a member of the committee and a member of St. Joan of Arc Church in south Minneapolis, where, thanks to the committee, the bells are ringing again for the first time "since anyone can remember."
House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul, where bells have been playing since 1923, hasn't needed the committee's help.
But David Johnson, who has been playing the church's carillon for 23 years and is considered the dean of carillonneurs, understands the group's passion for bells.
"Be it at churches, city halls or universities, for centuries they've had very precise responsibilities," he said. "They call people to public meetings. They tell us when the market is open. At times of praise, they are happy. At times of mourning, they are sad."
Bringing bells back to life takes a lot more than just squirting a little WD-40 on the pivot points and checking for frayed cables.
"Sometimes the bells aren't even in the church anymore," Hall said. "When they quit working, people took them down and put them someplace else, and pretty soon nobody has any idea where they are."
Once the bells are located, the costs of reviving them can vary tremendously. Some jobs can be completed for just a couple of thousand dollars, Sundquist said. On the other end of the spectrum, the Central Lutheran project — which involved completing bell tower construction that had been suspended during the Depression, casting 47 bells and adding a carillon — cost $5 million. That's why the group helps churches organize fundraising drives.
Not that anyone who loves the crystalline tone of a crisply rung bell believes that you can put a price tag on it.
"Bells are special," Johnson said.
Both Central Lutheran and House of Hope hold summer carillon concerts, which always draw a crowd. But Johnson said the music isn't just for them.
"It's people riding by on bikes," he said. "It's people walking, pushing baby strollers. And it's people in cars pulling over to the curb for a few minutes because they're curious. Everything the bells do is public."
Before ringing the bells at St. Joan of Arc for the first time, City of Bells members warned the neighbors in an attempt to head off any complaints. But it turned out that the neighbors have come to enjoy the sound.
"Now they look forward to it," said church and committee member Anna Vagle. Besides, pointed out Don Hall, Marion Hall's husband: When you live in a neighborhood where airplanes are roaring overhead, the sound of church bells is a welcome change of pace.
"They are the antithesis of airplane noise," he said.
Loud and clear
The bells at Central Lutheran are so loud that members of the church went into a nearby hotel to check the sound levels.
"It turns out that it has really good insulation," the Rev. Foy Christopherson said. "There are condominiums behind the hotel, and sometimes, when it's warm and people have their windows open, we'll get a couple of complaints about our Easter sunrise service. But that's been it."
Some churches go with a high-tech option by installing electronic bells similar to the ones on light-rail trains. The bells aren't as piercing, and they're cheaper. But, committee members feel, they're not as regal, either.
"We don't want to be bell snobs," Sundquist insisted, quickly adding, "but we want the real deal."
City of Bells, which started 10 years ago with the launch of the Central Lutheran carillon, also is gathering church bell history.
"We collect stories about the bells," Sundquist said. "Why did they choose these bells? How did they use them in worship? That sort of thing."
They also are on the lookout for bells that might be "tucked away in somebody's garage."
Information is available on the committee's Facebook page.
The high life
On the days that Mark Sedio plays the carillon, the Central Lutheran organist can skip going to the gym. That's because his commute to work is a five-story trek up a winding metal staircase, fashioned after a fire escape, that's almost as steep as a ladder and, by the time he reaches the top, about as narrow.
He doesn't have to make the climb. In the sanctuary, back at ground level, there's an electronic keyboard that also will play the bells. But he doesn't like to use it. The keyboard control is simply on or off; he taps a key and a corresponding hammer hits a bell. But at the carillon, he can control the intensity of each hammer strike based on how hard he punches the levers.
And punch them he does. With his fingers wrapped in tape like a prizefighter and his hand made into a fist, he pounds on the levers, which are called batons. He sits in a tiny booth that Minnesotans might compare to a fish house. Directly over his head is a bell that, he's been told, weighs as much as an SUV.
"It's really fun," he said. "My favorite is the Christmas Eve service. As soon as the congregation finishes singing 'Silent Night,' which happens right at midnight, I start playing the carillon."
(In case you're curious, the bells can be played until temperatures reach 30 below. "The issue isn't the cold, it's the snow," Christopherson said. The area housing the carillon is so snug that "there's no place to shovel it.")
In addition to House of Hope's Johnson, the members of the City of Bells committee have other allies in their mission.
"We are not alone in preserving the culture of bells," Don Hall of St. Joan of Arc pointed out. "The Basilica Landmark organization at its fundraiser in May of this year dedicated its efforts to 'restore the bell towers to ensure that the Basilica's beloved bells never fall silent.' "
A church brochure called the bells "an important part of the acoustic landscape of Minneapolis."
Sundquist feels the same away about the pealing bells at Central Lutheran. "I call it the heartbeat of the city," she said.