Impact of local bells carries the ring of truth

Season after season, like the heartbeat of the Hillsboro community, two bell systems ring out with a reverberating rhythm.

The comforting sound of bells tolling and playing music at Zion Lutheran Church and Tabor College brings meaning to many.

“Personally, it’s a symbolic call to worship,” said Ron Matz, an elder with the Lutheran church located at Lincoln and Grand streets.

“I just feel that whenever you hear bells playing-Tabor’s or our bells-you associate it with a church, you associate it with worship, you associate it with Jesus Christ. Right where you’re at, you can thank the Lord for something. It’s just a reminder that God’s here.”

About five blocks south of the church, Tabor’s bell system is located in Wohlgemuth Music Education Center.

“I think the significance is the ambiance that it creates, the outreach within the community-with the hymns and texts that go along with them,” said Bradley Vogel, associate professor of choral music at Tabor.

“I think it’s something that gives the city some flavor. And it’s fun for me to listen to the interplay between our bells and the Lutheran church bells. Because that one is pretty active, too.”

Both Tabor and Zion Lutheran have a single hand-pulled bell in their respective bell towers. But the bells that ring on regular schedules, seven days a week, are electronic bell systems called carillons (CARE-uh-lawns.)

A true carillon is a set of fixed chromatically tuned bells that are sounded by hammers. The two local carillons recreate that sound by using electronically programmed control boards. The towers are home to amplifiers that broadcast the reproduced bell sounds.

Made of Texas limestone, the current Zion Lutheran Church was built in 1954 and shortly thereafter, the carillon system was installed.

Also called a Quadrabell, the system was built by Schulmerich Carillons Inc. in Sellersville, Pa.

The master-control board is located in a small room beside the narthex. The board accepts a variety of tapes that look similar to old eight-track tapes, but each tape operates as a continuous, looping configuration.

At some point in the past, the bells stopped ringing.

“In 1973, I moved to Colorado, and somewhere along the way, they quit working,” Matz said.

When he returned in 1993 and inquired about the silent bells, he was told they had not been repaired. A Marion man was hired to work on the clock motor, but pieces of the machinery were still missing.

“It’s a beautiful machine,” Matz said. “And we thought if we can make it work, we’re going to do it.”

In time, the missing brass bars were eventually located, but the volume didn’t work.

“So then, we had a local man here in town take the machine apart,” Matz said about a man who donated his time. “I think that was the end of 2003. I don’t know what he did, but when he was done, it worked.”

The carillon is set to automatically ring at 9 a.m., noon, 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., seven days a week. Matz chose not to program them for the evening in respect for church neighbors.

“They’re fairly loud, and I don’t think people want to hear them at night,” he said.

Four times a day, the bells peal and briefly stop. The pealing is followed by one song from among several on about eight available tapes. Each single song lasts from four to five minutes.

Seasonal tapes are available for the Lenten season, Christmas and Easter. A patriotic tape can be played during national holidays.

“Some of them are hymns and some are old gospel songs,” Matz said. Among those available on the tapes are old favorites, such as “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” “Come Now Almighty King” and “Crown Him With Many Crowns.”

On Sundays-before the church service starts and during the Lord’s Prayer-church youth volunteer to ring the old cast bell in the tower.

Located in the same room with the control board, one rope will ring the bell once, and another will make it sound twice.

Matz said he’s glad the electronic bell system is now working.

“I’ve had some church members say they really appreciated they were playing again, because they’ve missed them,” he said.

“It’s been so many years that they didn’t work. Numerous congregation members told me community members have told them that they really appreciate them.”

The system at Tabor College is monitored by Vogel in the music-department offices.

The control board is housed in a small closet, and the amplifiers are located in the tower with the original Tabor bell that still works with the aid of a hand-pulled rope.

Purchased from the Verdin Company in Cincinnati, Ohio, and installed in 1995, the four-octave electronic carillon was a gift from a widow and her family in memory of their music-loving father.

“I was a student here in the early 1980s, and we had an electronic bell system then, also,” Vogel said. “It was located in the Lohrenz building. Every time we had a power outage, it would go out, and they’d have to reset it.”

Today’s carillon has a backup battery and is set to keep time with Greenwich mean time.

“It speeds up about one minute every six months,” Vogel said. “So at least twice a year, I have to go in and set it back.”

Instead of tapes, the system operates with small computer chips changed out once a month. Using digital-sampling technology, there are no moving parts. Any automatic function can be programmed to sound on any given date up to 99 years in advance.

Seasonal music and hymns are available on the chips that contain 24 tunes each. Vogel has 12 chips for a total of almost 300 tunes to choose from. The bells are set to begin ringing at 7 a.m., Monday through Friday, and 8 a.m., Saturday and Sunday.

At certain times of the day, the Westminster chime sounds on the quarter hour. At other times, the hours are denoted with the appropriate number of chimes marking that hour. From 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., the full-scale Westminster chime will sound on the hours. Full hymns play at 6 p.m. and 10 p.m.

“For campus events, I have it programmed to play a hymn at 9:25 a.m. on Monday and Wednesday each week, because we have regular gatherings those mornings,” Vogel said.

“They also play a hymn at 11:25 a.m. on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Fridays. That calls my choir rehearsal. I program it so it plays as the kids are coming to choir.”

The carillon schedule changes on the weekend with the addition of hymns at 9:25 a.m. and noon on Sundays. The carillon is also programmed to play 15 minutes of hymnal music prior to graduation ceremonies. Then, the bells are set to peal in celebration when graduates walk out of the gymnasium.

The original donation paid for the system, chips and maintenance funds to handle repairs.

About one to two years ago, the system wasn’t working properly, and it had to be sent to Cincinnati for $900 in repairs.

Vogel sent e-mails to staff and faculty announcing the bells would be temporarily silent.

“I called it the ‘No-bell Peace Prize,'” Vogel said with a smile. “There was no bell, and it was peaceful.”

When a faculty member suggested someone could ring the old Tabor bell in the interim, Vogel said he wasn’t going to volunteer to ring the bell every hour-making reference to the difficulties encountered by the Hunch Back of Notre Dame.

Other donors have come forth and bought chips, which can also be customized from an extensive list available from the Virdin Company. The last chips purchased in 1996 cost about $50 each.

Vogel said he sees the Tabor bells as a calling to worship, an ambiance associated with the college campus, an outreach to the community and a unifying factor between the college and the community.

“I think the bells have various and far-reaching effects on people, depending upon where they are in their lives,” Vogel said.

One community member touched by the sound of the church bells is Cheryl Lehr, a familiar face behind the counter of Daylight Donuts.

“I love to hear the church bells last thing before I fall asleep at night,” Lehr said. “It’s a subtle reminder that there’s more to life than the hectic pace. It says that this isn’t the last place we’re going to be-to think about something more eternal.”

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