Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once called bells the voice of the church. I wasn’t in such a poetic mood the day I craned my neck to study the flimsy stairs I was about to ascend to photograph the bell tower of St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Ashton. “Hell’s bells” was all that I could muster.
I questioned my sanity for telling Father Tate that I would be happy to photograph the church’s bells, over 100 feet above my beloved terra firma. With a bag of photo gear draped around my neck, I clutched the railing of that makeshift wooden ladder so hard I feared it would turn to dust before I could complete my first hesitant step.
Too scared to look up, I felt my way until I reached the first platform. I mumbled some curses when I realized the opening wasn’t big enough for the two of us, my bag and me, to go through as one. So, I backtracked two steps to make room to maneuver. My left hand clung tightly to the railing as my shaking right wrestled the bag from around my neck and through the hole above, before the rest of me could follow.
I braced for the next flight of stairs, a ladder flimsier than the first, which led to an even smaller platform. Eventually I made it to the level of the bells, a trinity of bronze percussion instruments supported by 12 x 12 inch oak timbers that framed the church tower to its peak, another 50 feet above.
I was so awed I forgot to worry about how I was going to get back down.
As I started to assess how to photograph these massive subjects in such a cramped space, I gazed through the wooden louvers to survey my world below. To the north I followed a SUV and a pick-up truck traveling on Church Road. Familiar family farmsteads dotted the hills to the west. To the south I looked across the broad shingled-shoulders of the church roof, which receded toward St. Peter’s cemetery with its 1,000 souls. To the east the afternoon sun highlighted the hayloft of Brother Barn on our farm.
Through these louvers, the bright sunlight angled harshly across the bells. After adjusting to the contrast, my eyes saw each bell to be a work of art, inscribed with the manufacturer, Henry Stuckstede of St. Louis, MO; the year, 1901; the name of a saint to whom each was dedicated; and a prayer in either German or Latin.
(Click on images to enlarge.)
I ran my fingers along the smooth rim of the bell closest to me, St. Petrus or Peter. Its prayer, from Psalm 117, was in Latin, Laudate Dominum, ones gentes; laudate eum, ones populi, “Praise the Lord, all you nations; glorify Him, all you people.” St. Petrus was the second largest bell of the three but the number one reason for my tower visit. Months earlier it had fallen from its moorings. Only the oak frame below it kept the one-ton bell from crashing down to the vestibule. Father Tate thought it a miracle to be recorded, so he asked me to take pictures of this re-hung bell, and said, with a smile, “While you’re up there, why not photograph all the bells.”
Next to St. Peter hung St. Johannes or John, the smallest at half a ton, called the “treble” bell because it produces the highest notes. Its German inscription, Alles meinem Gott zu Ehren, “Everything to honor my God,” was inscribed below the donor, Johann Mueller, an Ashton pioneer farmer who once lived nearby off Church Road.
Above them hung St. Maria or Mary, the largest, weighing a ton and a half and measuring four feet across its mouth, the “tenor” bell because it produces the lowest notes. Its German inscription, O Maria ohne Erbsünde empfangen bitte fuer uns die wir unsere Zuflucht zu dir nehmen, was the Prayer to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.”
For over an hour I explored the tower to find the sweetest light and best angles to capture the essence of the bells and their surroundings. I set up a light on a small tripod to fill in shadows or enhance the outline of an inscription. I photographed the framing from below with a wide-angle lens. I zoomed in to detail the pivoting headstocks that hold the bells, the wheels that hold the ropes the sexton would pull to swing the bells back and forth, and the clappers inside the bells.
All ropes had been removed because the parish will install a new chiming system to reduce stress on the belfry. The bells will no longer swing to ring their beautiful tones, but electric-driven hammers, activated by controls in the choir loft below, will strike them.
Father Tate said the new tones would be as beautiful as the old voices that spoke to me when I was young, working on our farm a half-mile away. They called me home from the fields for meals, tolled when a neighbor had died, and pealed when a neighbor had married. No need for a timepiece then.
The bells spoke to everyone in the area. Bells have been ringing from Catholic Church towers like this since the Middle Ages in Europe. In Ashton the original St. Peter’s, built in 1861, had a single bell. When the current church was under construction in November 1901, that old bell was shipped to the St. Louis foundry to be melted and incorporated into the three new bells during their casting. They arrived in Ashton on Dec. 13, 1901. At 3 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 25, 1902, they were blessed. Four days later, on Wednesday, Jan. 29, they were raised into the church tower and rung for the first time that evening. According to the local weekly, Middleton Times Tribune, three months later on Tuesday, April 29, the bells “pealed forth their brazen notes” as Ashton parishioners celebrated and dedicated their new “elegant edifice of worship.”
I photographed in the January breeze until my fingers were too cold to press the shutter. It was time to go, but I panicked at the thought of my return trip. Earlier that morning, Steve, the local craftsman who had re-hung the bell, had opened the platform doors and extended an electric cord to the bell level so I had power for my lights. The cord lay at my feet as I gathered photo gear into my bag when I had a blessed idea: use the cord as a rope, tie its end to the handles of my bag, and drop the bag down ahead of me so I wouldn’t have to carry it.
I’m relieved to report that the bag with all my equipment and I made it down safely.
P.S. The new chiming system is in. The bells ring more often now, every half hour from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Its tones are sweet, but not as loud, as brazen as before. Wordsworth, the poet, might say that St. Peter’s church now uses its inside voice.
Author’s note: I upload posts as I complete them, so one written about a recent event may precede posts about earlier events. The introduction to each post shows where it fits into the history. For an introduction to my memoir, visit Whole Hearted - A Farm Love Story.
This blog is a book in the making. If you're a new visitor, read Whole Hearted - A Farm Love Story. You can also find a copy in Prologue.