By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — The Bells of Peace were working fine by the end of August.
Then, BONG! As mysteriously as they started working, they stopped and fell silent just days before Bishop Robert W. Finn was to bless the historic Kansas City electronic carillon in its new home at St. Therese Little Flower Parish at 58th Street and Euclid Avenue.
Emergency calls were made to the Rev. Jeff Hon and to Dale Lenington, the two men who put in hundreds of volunteer man-hours for nearly a year to re-wire and re-assemble the 1960 bell system, originally the gift to Kansas City of philanthropist Joyce Hall to the Liberty War Memorial.
Cannibalizing spare parts, including nearly impossible to find vacuum tubes from wherever they could find them, the two then spent more hours diagnosing, guessing, and trying until BONG! The bells were ringing again.
Rev. Hon stepped outside the church to hear the four-work inaugural concert. But Lenington, whose business, Online Electronics, specializes in restoring classic electronic audio equipment including vacuum-tube technology Fender amplifiers, paced up and down 58th Street like a caged tiger, checking to see that the sounds coming out of the loudspeakers installed inside the church’s bell tower sounded not just good, not just great, but perfect.
Dr. Bruce Prince-Joseph, artist in residence at St. Therese Little Flower who spent 25 years as lead keyboardist for Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, performed Bach’s “Ave Maria.”
Canon Harry Firth, who brought the carillon from the Liberty Memorial where they had gone uncared for and forgotten to downtown St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in 1994, performed “Bells of Jerusalem,” a song he heard repeatedly sounding from the bells at Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher during a pilgrimage in 1996, then musically notated from memory on the flight back to Kansas City.
And finally, Caron Williams, gospel choir director at St. Therese who was taught by Prince-Joseph and Canon Firth to play the carillon’s complex console, performed two pieces embedded in the soul of the parish: The African-American anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and “Let There Be Peace on Earth.”
No problem, said Lenington.
“I’ll tell you how close we got,” Lenington said, pulling a walkie-talkie out of his pocket.
“We weren’t sure it was going to work, so I was going to man it from downstairs” where the electronic console, amplification system and super-complicated wiring system from the console to 405 rods that sound as bells to the speaker system was housed.
“There are literally 2,000 things that can go wrong,” Lenington said.
Nothing went wrong on Sept. 30. Briefly, as Prince-Joseph began to play, the Bells of Peace sounded through the speakers inside the church, but not outside from the bell tower, which was built in 1948 to house bells they never had.
That problem was quickly solved by the flip of a toggle switch on the console.
And in an instant poll of how the bells sounded, hundreds of people — neighbors, parishioners and friends — gave the bells a thunderous ovation, both inside and outside the church.
Among those with both thumbs up was Charlene Burnett, who was among the 40,000 who first heard the bells when they premiered at the re-dedication of the Liberty Memorial on Nov. 11, 1961.
That day, she sat with her Westport High classmates on Signboard Hill, where Crown Center is now located, and heard the inaugural concert at a ceremony that included speeches by former presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower.
The bells were beautiful then, and they are beautiful now, Burnett said.
“It is just so awe-inspiring, the beauty of this,” she said.
Rev. Hon, pastor of New Song Church in Kansas City, north, who helped rebuild and install the carillon at St. Mary’s eight years earlier, also let his relief show.
“It’s been frustrating, exasperating but very much worth it,” said Rev. Hon. “It feels good.”
That the carillon was even born, let alone survived this long, is its own miracle, said Father Ernie Davis, pastor of St. Therese Little Flower, in his remarks to the throng that packed his church.
“I don’t know who thought up the idea that you could connect a console to 405 bells, but they did,” he said. “We do know that Joyce Hall (founder of Hallmark Cards) had the idea that Kansas City needed one.”
But the technology behind the system and the music it played soon gave way to the turbulent 1960s, Father Davis said.
“It was an age of rock and roll, and transistors,” he said. “Carillons and their maintenance were not the strong suits of the Kansas City Parks Dept.”
After just 15 years, the carillon fell into disrepair and disuse. In the early 1990s, Canon Firth and Prince-Joseph convinced Liberty Memorial officials to let them have it, and they were only too happy to oblige.
Then, when a donor stepped up to offer a new state-of-the-art digital, computerized, electronic carillon to St. Mary’s during its renovation, Canon Firth offered it to his longtime friends Father Davis and Prince-Joseph.
“When the Bells of Peace needed a new mission and a new home, it clicked. So the Bells were put on another truck and brought here,” he said.
Before his blessing, Bishop Finn said the Bells of Peace have a clear mission at St. Therese Little Flower.
“Our hope is that they will announce the peace and triumph of love and Jesus over violence and everything that causes us pain,” he said.
“I hope that this is the last place for this carillon, and I hope that the bells and this parish will be here long after I and any of us are gone.”
Bishop Finn joked that it is a Catholic tradition to name bells. For example, the bell at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Harrisonville is appropriately named Bernadette.
“When I asked Father Ernie what the name of his bell was, he said, ‘Well, bishop. There are 405 of them,’” he said.
“You might think of them as a choir of angels praising God,” Bishop Finn said. “Or you might think of them as the cloud of witnesses in the Book of Revelation.”
But the voices of the faithful should join the voices of the bells in proclaiming God, he said.
“Our voices are made to praise God, to announce the peace, to be herald of good tidings,” he said.
Bishop Finn also remembered Msgr. Maurice Coates, the parish’s founding pastor, who lacked the funds for a bell, but nevertheless built the tower where 405 bells will now sound.
“Msgr. Coates, we hope you are having a smile with God,” he said.