Bits and Bites on Bells and Belles

Bits and Bites of Everyday Life

Of Bells and Belles and a dream come true

By Geneviève Hone

Hone, small image.
  Image by Julien Mercure.

26 April 2013 On this fine Saturday afternoon, I am slowly walking along the street, enjoying the spring sunshine, trying to pick up the sounds of birds in their mating and nesting season. But no luck. Bird conversation is drowned by the noise of the street, including that of two cars roaring down the block, “music” blaring out of sound systems that should be banned from the earth. I come to a lovely old church, notice that the door is open, a rarity these days, and with the hope of finding “sounds of silence”, decide to enter.

No one is in the church other than a young man perched high on a ladder putting up decorations for tomorrow’s service. He agilely climbs down and comes to greet me. In the course of our short conversation, he tells me a bit of the history of the church and he mentions that he is one of the bell ringers. This last bit immediately piques my interest. I have always been fascinated by bells, especially church bells, and if I am granted another life, I do want to train as a bell founder, no matter how long it takes. As you can well imagine, bell making is a very complex undertaking which I won’t explain here for lack of space… and also because I know absolutely nothing about the process!

I like the shape of bells, their sound, their significance in history. As a child I spent numerous hours drawing bell shaped skirts for my paper dolls in preparation for the ball where a rich handsome prince would discover they were princesses (precisely what would happen to me when I grew up). I loved the legend of church bells flying to Rome before Easter to pick up loads of eggs for children from all over the world. I remember running up to the church next to my grandfather’s home, at noon, to catch a glimpse of the enormous bells swinging the Angelus. And all through my childhood I dreamed of one day climbing up a belfry to see bells up close.

I am not sure who gave me a small bell that would become one of my prized possessions. It stands a proud 7 cm tall, weighs a full 189 g and is engraved with name, Françoise-Marguerite, and a date, November 20, 1895. I invented many stories around the name and date.  In one story, Françoise-Marguerite was a lovely peasant girl promised to a soldier who had given her the bell to mark the day of their engagement. Of course, the soldier was eventually killed in one of the numerous wars plaguing Europe in the 19th century. In desperation Françoise-Marguerite threw the bell down a disused and dirty well and entered a convent. The water became pure once more, acquired curative virtues and saved the lives of many people who drank it. In another version, Françoise-Marguerite threw herself from the belfry of the church where she was to be married. She was buried in unconsecrated ground, suicide being a capital sin, but every day, at the hour a bullet had felled her fiancé, an invisible bell would toll in memory of the dead lover.

I eventually grew up, well, sort of, and came to terms with the realization that “princesshood” was not part of my destiny. I still dreamed occasionally of finding my way up a belfry, but didn’t really think this would happen.  For one thing, one has to be invited to visit bells; one can’t simply wander into a bell tower as into a park or shopping mall, for instance. Such an invitation had never been issued. For another, bell towers are usually high structures, and truth be told, I am uncomfortable with heights. My small bell however followed me through numerous moves and on many occasions was put to good use by a sick child to call mommy to his or her bedside.

I can’t remember how I came to learn that my bell was actually a miniature of La Savoyarde, the great bell of Notre-Dame du Sacré-Coeur of Montmartre, named Françoise-Marguerite and blessed on the 20th of November 1895. Including the clapper and accessories, the three meter high bell weighs in at 26,515 kg and its very low booming sound can be heard 10 km away. You might think that my bell suffered by comparison, but you are wrong. If anything, I loved my little bell even more.

A week after my first visit to the church, I go back to listen to the bells before the service. I am greeted by another gentleman who kindly answers a few questions about the bells. Suddenly, he comes up with the invitation: “Why don’t you come up to see them?” I stutter something to the effect that I can’t, I really can’t, you see, I’m uncomfortable with heights. The narrow spiral staircase leading up to the bell ringer’s domain, may pretend to be a “stairway to heaven”, but to me, it is a very threatening ladder, the kind that could precipitate an innocent old lady on the stone floor without a flicker of remorse.

The kindly gentleman doesn’t reply, he simply signals me to follow him up the dreaded steps. To my surprise and delight, I find myself quite able to ascend to the bell ringing room where I meet the bell ringer of the day. I have too many questions for the time we have together, and even if I had the time to ask them, I probably couldn’t hear the answers. I am far too excited about actually being in a bell tower.

I climb down the steps easily and without fear, now that the staircase is simply a staircase (!). I decide to attend the service, a moment of coming together to honour life in all its forms. I find the homily on the subject of Faith quite inspiring.  My work as a social worker and psychotherapist could be described as the effort of helping people “keep faith," to honor Life by being loyal to others and themselves. I say a prayer of thanks for all the people, at times perfect strangers, who have ever shown faith in me, including the kind gentleman I met just 30 minutes ago. He expressed faith in my capacity to dare do something new. He issued an invitation, let me deal with my limitations and simply led the way. Faith, manifested to a stranger. Deo Gratias.

After the service, I thank the Rector for her well prepared and inspiring homily, but decline the invitation to join the community for coffee and a sweet treat. I want to get back home to triumphantly announce to my husband that I have been up in a bell tower. He will be very surprised, I am quite sure.

Well, I am wrong. When I come out with my big announcement, my husband replies: “I’m not surprised at all. You usually manage with a bit of help to have your dreams come true!”  Oh well…