The Bells of St. Mark’s, Philadelphia
by Stephanie Cowell
photos and video captures added by Brian Zook
as published in The Clapper The Official Journal of the North American Guild of Change Ringers Volume 27, Number 1, Winter 2000 also published in an abridged version in The Living Church May 7, 2000.
"We are hoping to restore the bells to a full set of eight for change ringing," said my friend, the Reverend Richard Alton. We were sitting around his enormous dining table in his mid-Victorian rectory in the historic district of Philadelphia, where my husband and I had come again to teach a small writers' workshop. But you cannot keep me from the church of St. Mark's Philadelphia. It is my second spiritual home, and I travel there from New York whenever I can for Father Rick married me and my husband when he was a curate in Fifth Avenue’s St. Thomas Church.
Then our visit ended and we said goodbye to our many friends. I stood in the garden looking up at the enormously tall spire of the 1849 brownstone church, and went home with my usual sense of loss for the warm family atmosphere of this gorgeous Anglo- Catholic building with the exquisite German carved choir stalls, the attentive stone angels of the chancel railing and the cloister-like ambulatory which runs the length of the church and sends my mind back to a more congenial time.
A hundred miles away, the bells began to permeate my world.
They came in the form of occasional e-mails from a neophyte bell ringer/parishioner, one of many who had dedicated himself to raising the money and finding the craftsmen to bring the bells from the high tower to which they had been consigned to toll discreetly now and then. I felt myself drawn in...but what lifelong Anglophile, what writer of 17th century fiction would not be? Came the day he e-mailed the web site address of the St. Mark's bells. I clicked on the icon, and the sound of bells pealing in cold crisp air rang out down the corridors of my office, causing people to put their heads around the door. Goodness! What’s that? Old English church bells from a computer in midtown Manhattan? Impossible! Marvelous!
Then came the announcement of the great dedication and blessing of fully fitted bells on the festal weekend which marked the 150th anniversary of the first service in St. Mark's. My friend, the soprano Shannon Coulter, was to sing a recital as well, and bell ringers from the Eastern coast and Canada were gathering to ring for two days from morn until dark, concluding with the first full peal rung in Center City Philadelphia in a century and a half. I marked it down in my calendar in ink, and leaving my husband home for a quiet weekend, took the train down. Even before I stepped from the taxi to Locust Street on a crisp October day I heard the sound and stood for a long time in the garden staring up at the tower.
They rang, and rang. They rang all day Saturday and all day Sunday. Strangers stopped in the street, gazing up, transfixed. Ragged men paused, listening and nodding to themselves, as if at last they understood something. Young women hurrying with babies in strollers smiled. Birds, I am certain, perched on branches to listen. When I walked about the neighborhood the bells sounded over the historic houses almost to Rittenhouse Square. I think almost all the neighbors were happy, or at least somewhat charmed. Barbara Alton, the rector’s wife and herself a neophyte bell ringer, told me that one college student ran over to inquire when on earth they’d stop because she was studying for an exam. With some empathy but not entirely able to suppress her joy, Barbara informed her, "Monday: do you have a library where you can work?.") So it progressed. Senior citizens walked carefully up the church steps to study the closed circuit monitor which showed the ringing room with its serious ringers, and another one which showed the great swinging bells.
I was escorted to the ringer’s room which was reached by stepping through a small wood door and following the narrow, winding stone steps up and up. There I stood in awe as the eight ringers pulled their ropes. For a few ecstatic seconds I was allowed to try, and felt the pull on the rope and heard the great muffled sound above me.
My friend had managed to get me a ticket to the bell ringers’ dinner, where ringers from many states greeted each other, told tales of bells in America, Canada and England: of towers with varying numbers of bells, of the occasional broken finger, of less arduous hand bells. Then, forsaking dessert, I rushed along the medieval stone ambulatory and took my seat for my friend’s glorious concert. It was followed by a candlelit reception ranging over two or three floors of the Victorian rectory and so many guests that it took me twenty minutes to cross one room to the singer. I stayed at her house that night and in the morning we went to service where she sang the prayers for the people and then to lunch.
Back at the church once more I was swept up by the bells. All day they rang, ringers coming through the little wood door which led to the tower. Everywhere I went I seemed to have passionate, deep conversations. To quiet myself down I took a walk to a local bookstore where I bought the last copy of Dorothy L. Sayer’s marvelous murder mystery, The Nine Tailors, set about a bell tower in '30s England. The terminology in the book flung itself at me as had the phrases in conversations I had heard again and again over the last twenty-four hours. Grandsire Triples, Kent Bob Major, quarter peal...I scribbled them inside the book cover, my head spinning.
Now it was time for the festive tea with every sort of cookie and huge platters of tea sandwiches of cucumber and egg salad and cakes and teas and innumerable people balancing tea cups and shouting conversations with each other over the noise. By this time having had far too much tea and sweets, I retired to a church pew with my novel of missing characters and jewels while above me the apse trembled with the second hour of the full peal. Hardly had they rung the last when the church began to fill for the solemn Evensong at which The Right Reverend Charles E. Bennison, Jr., Bishop Diocesan of Pennsylvania, would preside.
What was the relationship of man and bell? I thought as we all began the opening hymn. Could it be perhaps the communication between finite and infinite?. These huge instruments, from six hundred to two thousand pounds, obeying the carefully timed pull on rope and sally of those humans who stand eight in a circle, sensitive to each others rhythms, deeply connected to the great bells which they cannot see. The bells are stronger than the ringer, and yet without the ringer are condemned to silence. With the ropes they are sensed and felt but not seen, as we often feel about God. And yet how much must these great proclaimers of God's glory be cared for! They can crack, wear...now they hang mouth down, on their rims some thoughtful sentences often dedicating them to the memory of some departed loved one. I recalled visiting a room of bells in a museum in Germany many years ago, and feeling a terrible sadness at the dusty silence and an urge to break open the glass cases and liberate them.
The final hymn was sung and the Evensong celebrating the 150th anniversary of the first parish service and the new bells had concluded, yet there was more to come. With Father Alton, the Bishop processed to the dark garden and aspersed the bell tower, smiling in a delighted, self-effacing way. Then they both entered the tower and, while some hundred or more of us waited below close together in the beautiful little garden full of candles between Victorian church and rectory, advanced up to the various levels of the tower with the intent of arriving at the highest room where the new Angelus bell hung. For a long time there was no sign of them and a few of us stirred uneasily. Was it the over excitement and beauty of the day, the quantities of tea and cake mingled with an English murder mystery of violence done in such a tower that touched my mind?
There was no sound at all but the shuffling of feet and the murmuring of the choir as we gazed up to that spire so dark against the night sky. Had they reached the top? Had the bells been blessed? Would they ever be coming down again?
Then the bells burst forth in such a sound as we had not heard before. Perhaps it was the mystery of the garden under the trees, the sacredness of the service, or the faint relief to see Bishop and priest emerge smiling (for no bell could be rung until their ears were out of harm’s way and their feet descended the last of the winding stone stair). For a moment we stood cheering, and then people began to move from the garden through the gate. It seemed almost impossible there would not be another tea.
"Fifteen minutes until the train!" my soprano friend and her husband said, whisking me into their car as I shouted my goodbyes, most of them unheard over the joyful bells. I read all the train ride, not wanting to look up from the book where I knew I would be faced with the reality that the weekend was over, I was going home.
All during the reading of the marvelous novel that evening and in the next few days my longing grew until I was ready to give over everything to learn an art of which I had but dreamed the week before. There was no help for it! I wanted to live for ringing bells. I wanted to give up my office job and novel writing. I wanted to give up my New York apartment, move to Philadelphia near St. Mark’s and implore any kind hearted ringer to teach me. All other endeavors of life seemed unworthy.
There are after holiday doldrums, and after vacation doldrums and many other assorted kinds, but this was the sort from childhood when the party was over and the last child left. The dozens of ecstatic people, the candlelit garden, the receptions and teas, the incense, the vestments all wound with the bells were over and the weekend was done. Slowly I became philosophic about it and the doldrums died away. If I could not be a bell ringer, perhaps I would someday write of it. Would it be a mystery about a dark garden and a long gone bishop? We would see.
What are we without dreams and holy places to mark our days? I will return to Philadelphia and St. Mark’s a few times a year at least as I do to see my friends and worship with them. Yet in my mind I go as often as I please. In my mind it is a crisp October day, and as I step from the taxi on Locust Street and look up at the great brown tower, the bells will be ringing out as beautifully as they have ever done to the glory of God.
Stephanie Cowell is a historical novelist
living in New York City. Her books include Nicholas Cooke: actor, soldier,
physician, priest and The Players: a novel of the young Shakespeare. She
is a devoted parishioner of St. Thomas Fifth Avenue, and can be reached