Bells ring out at Peace

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By Kim Hurley

Register Freelance Writer

 

Throughout almost any town you can hear church bells ring from their towers each Sunday.  However, on the third of each month, September through May, you can hear 1 1 sets of hand bells ringing from within Peace United Church of Christ in Elkader at the 9 a.m. worship service.

The original three-octave bell set was purchased in 1992 with memorial money for Malcomb Stoops. This included not only the bell set, but also the tables, table coverings, and cases.  The bells were handcrafted by the Schulmerich company, located in Pennsylvania, which is the oldest and largest hand bell company in the world.  They are made of bronze, which is why the ringers always wear gloves when handling them.  Like any expensive musical instrument, they need special care and maintenance.

Lance Bentley, the minister at that time, asked Ruth Goings to organize and direct the bell choir.  “My mother had always wanted to start a bell choir in her church in Nashua, Iowa,” Ruth explains the inspiration to accept this offer, “I wanted to help realize my mother’s dream by starting the Peace bell choir.”

Originally, there were two bell choirs with 11 members each, plus the director, for a total of 23 members. Ruth recalls, “The choirs were named ‘Alpha’ and ‘Omega.’”  Joan Strauss has been the director since 2005.  Besides Ruth Goings, Shirley Lindell and Cheryl Schaefer have been former directors.  Currently, there is just one bell choir consisting of 11 members, 1 director, and 9 substitutes.  Ages of the current members and substitutes span from 18 years to the late 60’s.  The seven charter members who are still ringing are Donna Anderson, Hila Garms, Sue Gnagy, Ruth Goings, Penni Leonard, Laura Moser, and Sue Stott.  The other four “regulars” are Susan Johnson, Michelle Moser, Janet Ott and Donna Winke.  The nine substitute ringers include Brittany Barnard, Kate Chandler, John Gnagy, Keaton Lane, Helen Leavenworth, Kristina Miller, Amie Rodman, Tom Strauss, and Vanita Thomsen. 

The bell choir traditionally plays at two other venues. One is the ”Classic Christmas Fantasy” held bi-annually at the Elkader Opera House.  The other is a concert in late May at the Elkader Care Center.  Occasionally, members also attend area bell conferences where they join hundreds of bell ringers from several states for three to four days of classes; performances by choirs, small groups and soloists  from all over the country; and many rehearsals for a massed choir concert on the last day. The most recent event  was “Ring Davenport!” last June attended by four Peace ringers.

Joan said the bell choir practices weekly for one hour from the middle of August to the end of May. Many members practice individually or in small groups between rehearsals. 

“This enables the choir to play more challenging music,” Joan bubbles with excitement.

Ruth and Joan agree that such abundant practicing and performing creates camaraderie among the ringers.  “I feel such a bond with the other bell ringers,” Ruth shares, “Some of us have rung together for 23 years.”

Joan expresses further gratefulness for having the bell choir in her life, “When I moved to Elkader in 1999 to open my piano studio, I had no idea there was a bell choir across the street.  At that time, my two sisters were bell choir directors in Toledo, OH and San Antonio, TX,  and I  never thought I would have the same opportunity in a small town.”  Surprisingly, as Joan discovered, there are bell choirs not only in larger towns such as Dubuque and Cedar Rapids, but also in smaller towns including Postville, Guttenberg, and Waukon.

No matter where bell choirs are found, “God is glorified through this unique way of making music. The bells are beautiful to the eye and beautiful to the ear. They are a wonderful way of making a joyful noise,” Ruth aptly expresses.

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