Saint Meinrad Seminary & School of Theology

Formation and Education for the Life of the Church

The Archabbey Church Bells

by Krista Hall

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The bell towers and the bells are one of the first things people notice at Saint Meinrad. The towers lead people into Saint Meinrad and the bells call the monastic community to prayer.

"Our bells call me and all my brother monks five times a day to assemble in the church to pray the Liturgy of the Hours and to celebrate the Eucharist," says Fr. Barnabas Gillespie, OSB. "After living many years in the monastery, I must admit to sometimes not hearing the bells, unless I make a conscious effort to do so. But whether I hear them or not, I know they are ringing. They have rung out over the hills and valleys that surround us for most of our history."

According to the History of St. Meinrad Archabbey, by Fr. Albert Kleber, OSB, Fr. Ulrich Christen, OSB, purchased and blessed a set of three bells in 1859. Bells are named during their blessing and "St. Benedict" hung in a tower over the monastery, "St. Michael" hung over the choir and "St. Henry" hung on a willow tree with another bell that had been purchased in 1854. This purchase was controversial because Fr. Ulrich didn't have even 30 cents to mail a letter to Einsiedeln announcing the purchase.

The bells are mentioned again in the book during the 1887 fire. A seminarian was in the bell tower ringing the bells to alert everyone of the fire and, one by one, the bells came crashing to the ground.

After the fire, the metal from the bells was sent to the Stuckstede Bell foundry in St. Louis and cast into a set of six bells. A benefactor donated a wooden clock tower for the bells until the church towers were built. The clock from that tower is now in the Archabbey Church's bell tower.

Today, Saint Meinrad has two bell towers. One tower has four bells and the other has two. Bells five and six are often described to be as big as Volkswagens, so big that they lift the ringer off the ground when it's time to stop them.

Seven different ringing patterns are used, depending on the liturgical calendar. For a regular day in ordinary time, only two bells are rung for vigils and lauds and vespers. On a big solemnity or feast day like Easter, Christmas or St. Benedict, all six bells are rung.

"The tone of the bells works its way into your soul," says Archabbot Justin DuVall, OSB. "I can tell how much time I have left until Office [Liturgy of the Hours]begins depending on where the ring is, having rung them myself as a novice, but also over the years growing used to the pattern."

As part of monastic formation, the novices are responsible for ringing the bells. It helps them learn the rhythm of life in the monastery and teaches them to rely on the other monks. One person can ring bells one through three alone, but they need an extra person to ring four bells. Bells five and six take one person each to ring them because of their weight.

The novice who is bell ringer for the week is responsible for finding other monks to help with the ringing.

Bells are rung for other special occasions, such as the death or election of a pope, the election of an archabbot, and the eve and day of solemn profession and ordination. 

When a monk dies, a death toll is rung for the number of years the monk is professed with a minimum of 15 tolls. Bell five is used for the death toll and it has a separate rope that causes a hammer to strike the bell once. Two monks are usually in the bell tower to ring the death toll. One keeps count for tolls and the other keeps time. There are 15 seconds between each toll.

"My aging ears perk up when I hear the great bell begin the toll for a monk who has just departed this life," says Fr. Barnabas. "A sad moment indeed, but even then joy is not overlooked as the toll is replaced by the pealing of all the bells to, we pray, announce his entrance into heavenly glory."

Every monk has experienced ringing the bells. Many have stories; some have nightmares about bell ringing. They are a part of the life here at Saint Meinrad.

"For over 160 years, a Benedictine monastery has stood and flourished on this hill," says Fr. Barnabas. "For almost that long, a lone bell or several bells have rung out, not only to invite everyone to prayer, but also to express the joy we monks feel in having been chosen by the Lord to live out our lives in this place."

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Echoes from the Bell Tower is a blog devoted to observations on Christian faith, spirituality and everyday events, by authors with a connection to the Benedictine values found at Saint Meinrad Archabbey and its Seminary and School of Theology. Contributors include students, permanent deacons, Benedictine oblates and Saint Meinrad monks. Their stories, thoughts and ideas highlight the mission and vision that ring out from the bell towers on this Hill in southern Indiana.


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