Christmas bells are ringing — but not in Morris, Minn.
For years, chimes rang out across this small college town, tolling the hour and playing hymns and patriotic songs at funerals. They rang out from a sound system set by Ted Storck, a retired Navy commander who fell in love with the sound of carillon bells while he was stationed at the Pentagon and decided to ring those bells closer to home.
But the Morris carillon, a source of comfort and nostalgia for some, hit a sour note for others.
“The Curse of Morris” one neighbor dubbed them. Students at the nearby university complained. Someone vandalized the bells, slashing the wires powering the system. The City Council got involved.
Last December, the bells fell silent. This December, they’ll be installed in a new home — a church in Arizona, where Storck spends the winter. On Christmas Eve, he said, “the system will ring joyous Christmas bells.”
Storck and Morris officials had wrangled for months over the bells. The city manager didn’t want the sound of the bells to travel beyond the walls of Summit Cemetery, where they had chimed for more than a decade. Storck said he first tried relocating the system to a remote area of a neighboring cemetery, but gave up and removed the system entirely this summer. If the chiming of the bells was too quiet to carry past the cemetery walls, he decided, it would be too quiet for mourners to hear — and in that case, what was the point of ringing the bells at all?
“It’s impossible to confine the music to the cemetery,” Storck said. “More than once I said, ‘Why? Why did I try to do something nice?’ After a while, I just took them out.”
Morris City Manager Blaine Hill said he didn’t want the bells to come down — just the volume.
“Everybody agreed that they liked the bells, but they probably needed to be turned down and not played as often. That was the general consensus of everyone, including the City Council,” Hill said. Between funerals, the chimes tolled every quarter hour and played music every half-hour.
The sound traveled well beyond the walls of the cemetery where Storck had installed the $6,500 system in 2002.
Professors at the nearby University of Minnesota Morris campus told Hill they could hear chimes in their classrooms. College students said they could hear them in the dorms. Mothers complained about bells going off while they were trying to put their babies down for naps.
Hill could hear the bells at his own home, a dozen blocks away.
Storck meant the bells to be a gift to the community and he spent hours at the cemetery, cuing up funeral hymns for civilians and military anthems for veterans. One young widow told him how her small son would listen for the chimes, because they reminded him of his daddy.
“It was very frustrating. Every time I went out to the cemetery, people told me how much they enjoyed them,” Storck said. “People loved it … People would tell me they’d go to the cemetery to visit loved ones, and they’d go on the hour or the half-hour so they could hear the chimes.”
Some neighbors were less enthusiastic than the visitors. Local blogger and biology professor PZ Myers railed for years against the bells that tolled near his home, rousing him from sleep with the sound of “hymns. Cheesy hymns, played mechanically on an electronic carillon.”
Myers, who lives two blocks from the cemetery, said the clangor of bells started at 5 a.m. and continued until 10 at night, despite his protests.
Myers, an atheist, said he had no complaints about the bells from a nearby Catholic church, but the carillon bells were another matter.
“Every 15 minutes, they’d play two or three or four pieces of music,” he said. “Most of them were hymns but they were also things like ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic.’ It was never music that suited our moods, you know?”
In a letter to the Morris Sun Tribune, Myers suggested limiting the bell playing to funerals, or at least spicing up the repertoire with some Metallica.
Storck had intended the carillon system to be a gift and a comfort to the community. After city officials called for a limit on the volume and frequency of the bell ringing, a discouraged Storck headed to Surprise, Ariz., for the winter — and the bells went with him.
The system was scheduled to be installed Monday at St. Clare of Assisi; a new church, without a bell tower. They’ll ring out for the first time before Christmas Eve mass.
“The bells will call the worshipers to mass each Saturday and Sundays, plus play hymns before and after the masses,” Storck said. They’ll also play during the week. There’s a housing development nearby, but he said they’ve angled the speakers away from the homes.
The bells are gone from Morris, but the controversy continues in the community of 5,000. Hill still hears from people who miss the chimes and want them back.
“There are people on all sides of this,” he said. “I’ve got a file that’s 6 inches thick with correspondence and e-mails on this issue … But if this is our biggest issue in Morris, then we’re doing pretty good.”