bells 1

Deacon Herman Madsen plays the bells atop St. Michael’s Cathedral. Photo/Katherine Rose/KCAW

The bells at St. Michael’s Orthodox Cathedral in Sitka are ringing again after a temporary hiatus. Thanks to a new deacon with musical abilities and no fear of heights, you’ll hear them ringing most days at 11:55. KCAW’s Katherine Rose spent some time with Deacon Herman Madsen to find out more about his bell-towering achievement.

Downloadable audio

Sound of bells

Hear that?

Bell sounds grow

Those are the bells of St. Michael’s, and they haven’t been played for a while. That is, until Deacon Herman Madsen showed up.

“I always use the example of the medical field. The priest is like a
doctor and the deacon is like the nurse to the doctor,” says Madsen.

He and his wife Mary moved here at the beginning of the summer to help with tours at the church and assist Father Michael. It wasn’t always Herman’s plan to work for the Russian Orthodox Church.

“I was a wild child, I grew up with my grandmother,” Madsen says. “My mom and my dad sort of abandoned me. So my grandmother, at 70 took care of me. I nearly ended up in jail, but then my grandfather stuck out his neck for me.”

After spending 11 years at the academy, he debated joining the seminary for quite a while, but didn’t fully commit to the idea until he had an experience at the tomb of St. Herman in Kodiak.

“All of a sudden right next to this tree where St. Herman’s hut used to be,” Madsen explains. “Incense just started pouring out of the ground, and the smell of St.
Herman’s relics, surrounded me.”

Deacon Herman says it smelled of roses. It was unmistakably a religious calling.

“I just hit the deck and said i really need to go to the seminary, I don’t have any choice at this point.”

He’s been in the seminary for three years. Though he has a background in music and performance, playing the bells was a new adventure.

“When I got here there was no one really playing the bells at the time. So I
just started taking it up and doing it every day at noon. I didn’t take any
official classes on bell ringing. Because of my background in singing and playing instruments I had an ear for that kind of thing. I also
played the spoons,” Madsen laughs.

So playing the bells wasn’t too much of a stretch. There are 8 bells, a full octave, which makes it easier. But what does playing them entail, exactly? Is he, like, swinging from rope to rope, Quasimodo style? I follow him to the bell tower to find out.

Sound of walking up the stairs

“Was that four flights of stairs?” I ask.
“Five,” says Madsen.
“Oh wow.”

“It’s really nice on sunny days, come up here
and read a book,” says Madsen. ‘Whew!”

We’re both a bit out of breath as he explains to me how the bells work. The bells themselves have an interesting history. They were made in Holland, and ordered by the Russian American company in St. Innocent. They lasted up to 1966, when the fire broke out.

“In the fire these bells melted into clumps of metal. The men in the
community gathered up all the metal, had them resent back to the original
foundry, and these bells were recreated from the originals metal.”

Each bell is connected to a thin string, a bit thicker than a strand of yarn. Those strings connect to a podium with holes in it. The two largest bells are attached to two huge wooden pedals. And he plays the bells a little like bongos.

“Instead of pulling the strings, I tap all of the strings, and that’s why I
can play it so fast, and in so many different ways. That’s why they sound so
awesome,” laughs Madsen. “You get some pretty awesome exciting bell ringing that happens that gets you kind of pumped up. It’s really kind of fun.”

Fun, and loud. Herman and his wife will leave Sitka at the end of the summer, with plans to come back next year, and hopefully make Sitka their home.

Sound of bells

Since this story aired on Raven Radio, we’ve learned from a reliable historical source, that some of these details may not be entirely accurate. Our source believes that the metal was tested in Ohio and new bells were cast in Holland based on the composition of the original bells. The Sitka Historical Society is fact checking some of these details, and we will update the story in the near future.