By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — In a highly unlikely though very appropriate neighborhood, the Bells of Peace Carillon will soon ring again after a three-year silence, perhaps as early as Easter.
Originally the gift of Hallmark founder Joyce C. Hall to the city in 1961 and billed as the largest electronic carillon in the world — 405 “bells” to be precise, the Bells of Peace will find its third home in its 50-year life at St. Therese Little Flower Parish, a Catholic parish smack in the heart of a neighborhood once dubbed by local media as, “The Murder Factory.”
It is the home neighborhood of more people incarcerated in Missouri prisons for homicide than any other postal zip code.
But it is also a neighborhood where the sound of church bells peeling sacred music has never been heard. Ever. Until, if everything goes well, Easter 2012.
The parish, founded in 1925, worshiped in its school basement until 1948, when the Shrine of the Little Flower was built at the corner of 58th Street and Euclid Avenue.
The church was built with a bell tower, but no bell.
“It’s kind of funny but I’ve had people tell me they remember hearing the church bell when they were kids,” said Father Ernie Davis, parish administrator. “But there has never been a bell in our tower.”
And there won’t be. What will go into the church tower will be huge, cone-shaped, loudspeaker “horns” that will carry the amplified sounds of the bell carillon to the neighborhood.
A purist might argue that the Bells of Peace Carillon is not a true, “traditional” carillon. You need actual big, cup-shaped bells with clappers, operated by a baton and lever system for that. After all, Kansas City’s Bells of Peace is not listed by the World Federation of Carillons.
But a purist would also get an argument from maestro Bruce Prince-Joseph, formerly master keyboardist for the New York Philharmonic who had the idea to restore the carillon at its second home at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in downtown Kansas City, and at St. Therese Little Flower, where he now serves as music director and artist in residence for the parish’s Sunday Anglican Use High Mass.
And if the purist would get an argument from Prince-Joseph, he might get a fight — in the spiritual sense — from Episcopal Canon Harry Firth, who nursed the carillon like a mother hen during its 15 years as the Bells of St. Mary’s.
Whatever the instrument is called, the Bells of Peace is an awe-striking example of mid-20th Century American technology, crafted by the Schumerlich Carillons, Inc., the world’s foremost maker of electronic carillons.
Instead of huge bells operated by levers, the Schumerlich “bells” are simply small precision-crafted metal rods that precisely imitate the exact sound of a bronze bell when struck by a tiny hammer operated by a 61-note keyboard.
The rods, hammers and amplifiers are all contained in a series of wooden cabinets now installed in the church basement, while the keyboard has its home in the back of the sanctuary.
The sound from each rod, varying in length and thickness but none measuring more than a few inches, is barely audible. Until it is electronically amplified, then carried through speaker systems both inside and outside the church.
And that system is a marvel.
The Rev. Jeff Hon, pastor of New Song Christian Church in Liberty, helped install the Bells of Peace at St. Mary’s in 1994, then jumped at the opportunity to do it again at St. Therese Little Flower.
“It’s an obsession,” Rev. Hon said.
He started the job last fall with Richard McDonald, an electrical engineer who also helped wire the complicated system at St. Mary’s and maintained it through its 15-year life there.
But early in the process, McDonald fell ill while working at St. Therese, was rushed to a hospital, and died on Nov. 13.
Rev. Hon then called in close friend and electrical engineer Brian Haupt, a member of Trinity Episcopal Church in Lawrence, Kan.
“I couldn’t read the blueprints,” Rev.Hon said. “I needed help.”
Together, the two men spent hundreds of hours poring over pages and pages of schematic drawings, plus copious notes that McDonald left from his years of installing and tending to the instrument at St. Mary’s.
Then they began painstakingly, patiently and tediously wiring and soldering each of the tiny bell rods and hammers, and each amplifier in the complicated system to three different power sources — conventional 120-volt AC, and both low and high voltage DC.
One wrong wire to one wrong place, and the whole system could be lost, especially since it operates on pre-solid state transistor technology with 1960s-era vacuum tubes, the kind that aging baby boomers will remember inside their parents’ television sets.
“I’ve had many a sleepless night,” Rev. Hon admitted.
When, not if, vacuum tubes will need to be replaced, they will have to be ordered from a company in Russia, the only manufacturer of vacuum tubes left in the world, Haupt said.
“Even in 1961, this was dated technology,” he said. “It is really 1940s and 1950s technology.”
He couldn’t even begin to guess what the vacuum tubes will cost to replace now.
“Some of those tubes would have been expensive in 1961, a couple of hundred dollars,” he said.
Prince-Joseph said the Bells of Peace Carillon set back the Halls some $61,000 — in 1961 money.
“You could not replace it today for $600,000,” he said.
The entire St. Therese Little Flower project, said Prince-Joseph, is costing the parish exactly nothing. All costs of moving, restoration and installation have been picked up by donations from friends of Prince-Joseph’s who have also helped start a fund to keep the Bells of Peace ringing.
Hon and Haupt said they are giving their time free to the project for two reasons — love of the Bells of Peace, and the clarion call to peace that they will represent to the Blue Hills neighborhood surrounding St. Therese Little Flower.
And when they hear them ring again, Haupt and Rev. Hon said they will be paid in full.
“There have been days when we got here at 9 a.m. and left at 7 p.m.,” Rev. Hon said. “But anytime something that you have been working on and focusing on that much sounds so beautiful, it makes it all worthwhile.”
The Bells of Peace Carillon, just 60 years old, has already made a mark on the history of Kansas City.
The carillon was the Hall family’s gift for the rededication of the Liberty Memorial some 40 years after world leaders gathered for the first dedication of what became the world’s monument for peace in the wake of a war known then as “The Great War” and more optimistically, “The War to End All Wars.”
The 1961 rededication was no private party, either. Some 40,000 people gathered for the Nov. 11 ceremony, with two former presidents, Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower who had just left office, as featured speakers.
Then to debut the instrument, the world’s foremost carillonneur, John Klein, performed his own composition written just for the occasion, appropriately entitled, “Bells of Peace.”
The Bells of Peace continued to sound at the Liberty Memorial until the mid-1980s, when it fell into disrepair and silence.
But in the early 1990s, Prince-Joseph and Canon Firth were determined not to let the carillon remain dormant any longer. They were going to acquire the Bells of Peace and move it to St. Mary’s, where both worked, by any persuasive means necessary.
“When we first decided to approach them, we didn’t know if we’d get out alive,” Prince-Joseph now can joke.
Instead, the answers from the officials at the Liberty Memorial surprised them: “Sure. Take it,” they said. “It’s taking up space that we need.”
But the five-rank, 305-bell carillon that Hall donated wasn’t enough, not for Prince-Joseph and Canon Firth. They ordered four more ranks of 25 bells each, and relied on McDonald to add them to the original carillon.
“It is now the largest electronic carillon system in the world,” Prince-Joseph said.
It took two full years to bring the Bells of Peace back to life.
The dedication of the bells at St. Mary’s was cause for another citywide celebration.
Then-Mayor Emanuel Cleaver proclaimed the day, July 4, 1994, “Bells of Peace Day” in Kansas City.
“It was a pretty big deal,” Canon Firth said. “The church was absolutely packed, and we had hundreds of people standing outside.”
Inside or outside, no one left disappointed after Canon Firth’s concert of sacred music.
For the next 15 years, the Bells of Peace rang through downtown, announcing the noon hour, calling people to worship, “and at other times as needed,” Canon Firth said.
Such as April 19, 1996, the first anniversary of the bombing of the Alfred Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
In front of Kansas City’s Richard Bolling Federal Building, federal employees gathered for a memorial service. Blocks away at St. Mary’s, Canon Firth and the Bells of Peace provided the music.
“I played ‘America the Beautiful’ on the bells,” he said.
Daily, the bells became part of the downtown fabric until they went silent again in 2009.
Renovation of the church required that the Bells of Peace be dismantled again. Instead of reinstalling them, Canon Firth called his old friends Prince-Joseph and Father Davis, a former Episcopal priest, and offered the carillon to St. Therese Little Flower.
Because McDonald and Canon Firth maintained the Bells of Peace in tip-top condition, the installation at St. Therese Little Flower is going quickly, Rev. Hon said.
The system is already half-wired and capable of music, though not quite up to the standards Canon Firth and Prince-Joseph say it will soon reach.
“It’s a wonderful start,” Canon Firth said.
Rev. Hon and Haupt said if all goes well, the carillon will be fully wired and “voiced” in time for Easter Sunday services, April 8.
But Father Davis has even bigger plans.
Sometime during the spring when schedules permit, the parish will invite Bishop Robert W. Finn for a formal dedication. The parish will once again ask Mayor Sly James to proclaim the day “Bells of Peace Day,” and federal, state and local officials will be invited to come to Blue Hills and St. Therese Little Flower — “The Murder Factory” — for a celebration.
“We want to do this in a big way,” Father Davis said. “We want a city-wide party that will bring people to Blue Hills.”
He also wants the Bells of Peace to help the parish draw people to God by announcing God’s presence among them daily.
“I want people in the neighborhood to know that this is a real church, and that the church is praying for them,” Father Davis said. “We have people coming to our food pantry during the week who don’t know that they are welcome on Sunday morning.”
Father Davis also prays that the sound of church bells will bring some measure of peace to a neighborhood that in a two-month span last year experienced two shootings within two blocks of the very front door of St. Therese Little Flower.
“Maybe the sound of bells will make someone pause a moment before they shoot a gun,” he said.