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Historic bells to ring again

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ST. ANDREWS -- After more than a decade of silence, the bells that once called early Red River settlers to worship will soon ring that invitation to 21st-century parishioners.

Extensive repairs to the 22-metre bell tower at St. Andrew's-on-the-Red Anglican Church means the congregation can once again ring the large brass bells imported from England in 1849, says the rector's warden.

"We haven't rung the bells for 10, 15 years because we were always scared the tower wouldn't stand the vibration," says Barbara Gessner, whose family has attended St. Andrew's for four generations.

The congregation celebrates the return of the bells at 11:15 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 25, when the bells and the restored tower at the church 20 minutes north of Winnipeg will be blessed by Bishop Donald Philips of the Diocese of Rupert's Land.

Repairs costing $67,000 were covered by government grants and donations from the congregation, which numbers about 35 on Sunday mornings. The wooden belfry was repaired and repainted, and the four-storey limestone tower was reinforced with steel beams and wire cross braces.

"It's quite amazing to transform a silent church into one that can ring its bells," says architect Wins Bridgman, whose firm worked on the repairs.

In addition to the interior reinforcements, the dozen Gothic style arches of the belfry were lengthened to restore them to their original design.

The repairs mean the bells of the oldest stone church in Western Canada can once again function in the way they were intended when the area just upriver from Lower Fort Garry was settled by retired members of the Hudson Bay Company, says the congregation's treasurer.

"The practical use is to call people to worship," says Peter Clarke. "That's what they're designed to do and that's what we're going to do."

Clarke says the congregation considered taking the bells out of the tower and hanging them on a separate structure, but chose to proceed with repairs in order to maintain the historical aspect of the church and the integrity of the tower.

When the wind blows against the tower, the bells act as a counterbalance by moving the opposite way, explains Bridgman.

Although the Gothic Revival limestone building, with its roof shaped like an inverted York boat, is a provincial and national heritage site, it is first and foremost a place of worship, says Gessner.

"When I was a kid, you came here because it was your church, not because it has any historical significance," she says.

"It gives (me) a sense of pride to come and worship in a church with the tradition and historical nature," adds Clarke.

Bridgman says the congregation is to be commended for the time, money and care they put into their historic building, which still boasts original floorboards, three period pump organs, and a dramatic stained glass window in memory of Archdeacon William Cockran, an Anglican missionary who came to St. Andrew's in 1827.

"It's very important that buildings of this type be used because it's in the use that these buildings are important," says Bridgman.

"They (the congregation) are the stewards of this church. It's out of their pockets that this work gets done and their time that they give."

Old churches are also testaments to the hard work of Manitoba's early settlers as well as the continuing faithfulness of the current parishioners, says Bishop Donald Philips.

"When a historic church building continues to be well-maintained, and historic practices like bell-ringing are still engaged, the members of the congregation help to provide an example to the wider community of how we can continue to take into our future what we value about our past," Philips says in an email.

"It provides a much-needed sense of continuity in the midst of an ever-changing and often confusing life in the 21st century."

The bells will provide that continuity, except for one small detail. After a decade of silence, no one in the congregation has any recent experience ringing the bells, says Gessner, whose husband Bill was an occasional bell ringer but has since retired from the job.

Bill Gessner says the task requires some agility, with a single bell ringer using hands to ring two of the bells and a foot through a looped rope to sound the middle bell. Ideally, three people would each ring a bell, he says.

"You don't have to be terribly strong, but if you're in good shape, you can do it," says Bill Gessner.

"There's sort of a rhythm for it."

For Barbara Gessner, the rhythm is in the repeated ringing of the three bells, which to her ears sound to her like an invitation: "Come to church, come to church."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 17, 2011 J13

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