Todd Hultzman and Kraig Rapp worked in the bell tower of Janesville’s Nativity of Mary Church on Tuesday, preparing three massive bells to make sounds they have not performed for years.
They worked in cramped quarters, sharing the small space as wind rushed through louvered openings about 100 feet above the street.
They were working under deadline. The Rev. Dan Ganshert plans to start a traditional daily series of peals as early as Wednesday.
The bell technicians went to work by climbing six flights of narrow wooden stairs, likely original to the 118-year-old church building, which is commonly referred to as St. Mary’s.
The bells, tarnished over time, hang about halfway up the 200-plus-foot tower. A shiny, gold-colored metal ball hangs in the middle of the largest bell, the 2,000-pounder named St. Cecilia.
“That’s a brand-new clapper in there, with new springs,” Hultzman said. “All three bells have new swinger assemblies, and we put new bearings on the little bell, which is way up there (overhead). And now we’re putting a striker on the big bell here.”
The “little” bell is the 600-pound St. Joseph. The third bell weighs 1,000 pounds and is called St. Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney.
The workers also replaced the motors that swing the bells, along with associated hardware, all likely original equipment about 74 years old.
Clappers develop flat spots over time, so the new clappers should produce clearer tones, Hultzman said.
The three bells can produce a variety of sounds. The clappers hang inside the bells, producing tones when the bells swing. The striker hits the bell when it’s not swinging, producing a funeral tone, among other uses, Hultzman said.
The three bells rang solemnly for funerals or joyously for Easter for decades, but the mechanisms started failing over time, limiting the bells’ use before they fell silent, Ganshert said.
The bells were first installed in June 1947 after congregants raised $8,000, the equivalent in today’s dollars of $94,000.
The bells worked when Ganshert served at St. Mary’s in 1979-82. He was recently appointed pastor here, and when he asked about the bells, he was told substantial repairs were needed.
Parish members Carol and Thomas Berner included St. Mary’s in their will, but Thomas died last year, and Carol was looking for a way to donate sooner rather than later. She asked Ganshert.
“He told me about the bells, and I said, ‘Count me in,’” Berner said.
The Berner family has a special connection to the project. Thomas and his father, Louis, both graduated from the church school, and Louis loved to recount that when he was an eighth-grader, he locked eighth-grade girls in the tower, Carol said.
There was talk of the monsignor grabbing Louis by the ear afterward.
Names and dates written on the brick walls show that students still find their way into the tower. The donation is in the names of Thomas, Louis and Louis’ wife, Josephine.
Berner paid $35,000 for the repairs.
“I just thought it would be a perfect tribute to a very devout, longtime family of the church,” Berner said.
The Verdin Co. of Cincinnati installed the bells nearly 74 years ago, Ganshert said. The same company sent Hultzman and Rapp to complete the repairs and updates this week.
Janesville’s Westphal & Co. replaced the old electrical cables and controls.
“People miss them,” Ganshert said of the bells, which he plans to program so they will peal for the daily Angelus, a call to prayer traditionally done at 6 a.m., noon and 6 p.m. He plans to shift the morning chimes to 8 a.m. so as not to disturb the neighbors.
Ganshert hoped to restart the Angelus on Wednesday. The bells will also ring Saturday evening, signaling the eve of the holiest of days on the Christian calendar.
Madison Diocese Bishop Donald Hying is scheduled to rededicate the bells at 3 p.m. Mass on Sunday, April 11.
Berner said she lives too far away to hear the bells, but she grew up in a different state, where she heard them all the time, living three blocks from her church.
“There’s something comforting about that, to know, no matter where I am, if I hear church bells, that’ll bring my family home to me. It doesn’t have to be these bells,” she said.