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The original St. Michael’s Cathedral, built by Russian colonists from hewn timbers, was famously destroyed by fire on New Year’s in 1966. It’s eight-bell carillon rendered into molten slag.
The church was rebuilt, and recast bells were reinstalled by 1976. The bells have often rung in Sitka since then, but they haven’t sounded anything like this:
(sound of bells ringing)
This is a historic recording preserved by the National Park Service. It’s believed to be John Williams, or perhaps his nephew Phillip Williams, the last in several generations of his family who did not just ring the bells, but played them. It was recorded around 1960.
“It’s not just ringing 1 – 2. You’re using your feet, all of your arms, two or three chords at a time. You actually play melodies. It’s not just ding – dong.”
Fr. Sergious Gerken has been the parish priest in Sitka since May of this year. He says there is an extensive body of musical literature for the bells which are tuned – to western ears – in a C-seventh chord. The biggest bell weighs 1400 pounds, and sounds the G note below middle C.
(sound of bell chiming)
I’m standing with Fr. Sergious and Sitka Historical Society director Bob Medinger four stories over Lincoln Street, in the refurbished belfry. I’m not totally comfortable in tall, rickety structures, but the rebuilt cathedral is constructed of iron girders, and looks reassuringly sturdy.
Fr. Sergious says there is a 1000-year tradition of bell ringing in Orthodox Christianity, much of it musical, especially during services and holidays, and much of it merely practical.
“I have my Mickey Mouse watch and it tells me its 3:30 right now. Who could afford a clock or a watch except the emperor or some rich merchant? So the thing was to be able to ring the bells for matins, for midday, for any special occasion – or alarm. When there’s a fire, church bells ring, everybody congregates. It was a focal point: if a ship comes in you’d be able to notify the rest of the people. This gives us an opportunity to also do something along those lines. Bells were an important part of town.”
Between the destruction of the original cathedral, and the hazardous conditions that developed in the wooden stairways and hatches in the reconstructed belfry, Sitka lost its tradition its tradition of bell playing, but that is about to change. Fr. Stephan Mehlich, from the Orthodox diocese in San Anselmo, California, has agreed to visit Sitka in September to train new ringers. Mehlich himself was trained at St. Tikon’s Monastery in South Canaan, Pennsylvania.
Bob Medinger says it’s a chance to recapture some of Sitka’s past.
“Right now we are in the serious throes of trying to recruit ringers. We’d like to get up to four, perhaps one or two more. Reading music is very important. If you think you’ve got the time and you’d like to do something quite amazing – have quite a view during your work session up there. You can chat with us about the kind of commitment you’d like to make. We’re trying to get Fr. Mehlich up here in the third week of September. Tentatively that’s the week we’re trying to do the training.”
St. Michael’s would like to find recruits both within and outside of the Orthodox congregation. Medinger says the Historical Society supports the idea of bringing music back into Sitka’s daily life, whether striking the hour or greeting arriving ships.
Some barriers do remain: During work to improve the four flights of steep stairs to the belfry, significant rot was discovered in the floor of the belfry itself. Replacing it has punched a $15,000 hole into the project’s budget. Medinger hopes tour revenue of the refurbished tower may cover some of that cost. He and Fr. Sergious also hope to create a program to allow major donors – even those who don’t read music – a chance to play the bells.
(sound of bells ringing)
Fr. Sergious – “Oh… Be Quasimodo for a day, that would be great!”
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