Baptist bell-ringer tolls for Episcopal weddings, funerals

Posted: 11/30/07
Irene Raymond is a Baptist but has been ringing the bell at All Saints Episcopal Church in Mobile, Ala., for weddings and funerals more than 35 years. (RNS photo/Mike Kittrell/Press-Register of Mobile, Ala.)

Baptist bell-ringer tolls for
Episcopal weddings, funerals

By Roy Hoffman

Religion News Service

OBILE, Ala. (RNS)—Solemn and intent, Irene Raymond stands in the vestibule of All Saints Episcopal Church and clutches the rope that leads through a hole in the ceiling to a 1,500-pound bell.

Slowly, methodically, she puts the whole weight of her body into the first pull—gong. Then, as the bell swings the other way high above, she pulls down again, harder. Gong!

For more than 35 years, at ceremonies joyful or sad, it has been the task of Raymond, a Baptist, to send the clang of this giant bell through the sanctuary of this nearly century-old Episcopal church.

“It’s a great honor to ring the bell,” said Raymond, 68.

On Sundays, an All Saints usher rings the bell. But for weddings and funerals, Raymond, a great-grandmother, repeats her decades-long ritual of tugging the rope until the 40-inch-diameter bell resounds through the neighborhood.

“You can ring it real light, or you can ring it real hard,” she explained.

“At a wedding, I’m clanging, and they’re coming out joyful. They’re waving at me, and the lady’s in her wedding gown. I pull it a little harder. People tell me, ‘Irene, ring it good!’”

Raymond was taught to ring her bell by a master, she said. In 1966, when she was in her 20s, she found custodial work at All Saints, and was under the guidance of the sexton of that time, Carter Smith.

“I’d see him ring the bell,” she said. “I’d see him put on his white jacket.”

Eventually Raymond succeeded Smith as sexton, a position that entails opening and closing the church, keeping it clean, readying it for events and helping organize receptions.

On one occasion while Smith was still sexton, a church member died when Smith was scheduled to go out of town. She asked who would ring the bell.

“You,” Smith told her.

“I was very nervous about it,” she said.

When she saw the casket appear on that first occasion, she felt deeply stirred at taking part in her small way in the ceremony. She still feels that way when a funeral procession begins, she said.

“When they bring … (the casket) in, I ring it two or three times to let them know their loved one is coming up through the church,” she said.

She rings slowly—clong, clong, clong—counting five beats between each ring to keep it reverent. At the end of the funeral, as the family walks behind the casket, and outside to the hearse, “I start ringing the bell again. It’s the last time they’ll be coming out of the church.”

She rings the bell at least once for every year of the departed person’s life, but she will keep ringing, she explained, no matter how long the life span, until the mourners have driven away.

Mary Robert, assistant rector at All Saints, noted Raymond brings her own sense of spirituality to the ritual.

“Irene’s got everything to do with making it solemn for funerals,” she said.

For funerals, Raymond pulls on one rope, for weddings, another. Both coil up through the ceiling to the tower, one rope moving the bell’s clapper, the other rocking the entire bell. Moving only the clapper allows for a somber, shadowed tone that sets the mood for funerals. Moving the whole bell until it is swinging enables the clapper to bang against both sides, making for a brighter, faster peel that’s good for weddings.

For all the gravity of the funeral bell—“It’s a sad thing, a moaning sound,” Raymond said—the wedding bell, by contrast, is so joyous.

“I ring the bell when the bride is getting ready to come down the aisle. I ring ‘clanga, clanga, clanga’ for the wedding.”

Raymond, who plays no other musical instrument, rings the bell from the heart.

“I have rung for people’s weddings, and then their children’s weddings,” she said.

It will sound, she knows, for many more generations to come.

“Somebody,” she said philosophically, “is going to ring it after me.”

Roy Hoffman writes for The Press-Register in Mobile, Ala.

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