How St. James Church’s bells bring harmony to Upper Montclair
If you happen to walk by the corner of Valley Road and Bellevue Avenue in Upper Montclair around noon, you might hear bells ringing in harmony for about 15 minutes.
The sound comes from the bell tower of the Episcopal Church of St. James, located at 581 Valley Road and built in 1918. The ringing started mid-March 2020, with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Rev. Melissa Hall, St. James’ rector since 2004, said the church has always been a place where people gather during difficult times.
“When 9/11 happened, people flocked here. They were looking for comfort. They were looking for solace. They were looking for peace,” Hall said. “When COVID happened, I realized it was the opposite. We couldn’t come in. We had to keep the doors closed. And I didn’t want to do that. And I said, ‘How do we let people know that you can’t be here but we’re still here?’”
Hall spoke with the church’s director of music ministries and organist, Sean Price, about playing hymns for a few days a week around noon.
“I suggested, ‘How about every day, seven days a week?’ And that’s what I did. I’ve played them pretty much consistently since,” Price said. “Now, I’m down to five days a week because I am back to work in the city, but I still try to continue playing the bells.”
Every day from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., every 15 minutes, the bells ring electronically, with the help of an electric clapper. At noon, when the hymns are played, Price goes to the bell tower and plays the bells by hand.
Price said in the bell tower, on the second floor, there is a console with 11 wooden levers that are connected to 11 bells in the tower. The levers are connected to metal cables that are attached to a pulley system. The cables are attached to a clapper that hits the side of the bell and makes the bell ring.
“Many people seem to think the bells swing. They do not swing, they’re stationary. But the clapper inside the bell does move,” Price said.
In order to play the hymns and other repertoire on the bells, Price said, he has to push down the wooden levers with leather gloves — so he doesn’t get splinters on his hands. It’s hard to do, he said.
“I play for about 15 minutes every day. And at the end of that, I feel like I just ran two miles,” Price said.
Price said he goes through a variety of hymnals for inspiration. He said he is unable to use every hymn in any particular hymnal because of the limited set of bells. So, he marks which hymns he can play, and which ones he can’t. Price also selects a secular piece to end with before 12:15 p.m., so that people might more easily recognize the tune.
“Normally from the 1920s, 1940s, 1930s. I’ve played some music from the ’80s and ’90s, and even music written today. That way folks can recognize it,” Price said.
Hall and Price said the response from the community has been mostly positive, with a few negative comments from some people saying the sound is too loud. Hall said when the weather is warm, people gather outside the church just to hear the music play. And Price said most people have told him they are moved by the music.
“No matter where I went, someone would say to me, ‘Are you the priest from that church in the corner? The one with the bells?’ I’d say yes. And they’d say, ‘It’s so wonderful. It means so much to me to hear the bells that it gives me comfort, it makes me feel okay,’” Hall said.
She said the bell ringing won’t stop any time soon. But the way the bells are played will change. Price said the strain on the cables snaps them on occasion, making them unusable.
Hall said the church signed a contract to put external strikers on the bells so they can be operated electronically. Price said he will be able to play the bells in real time from his phone with the new system.
“It’s the real bell playing. It’s not a recording or anything electronic like that. It’s just a more modern approach to playing the bells and preserves the mechanical system upstairs as well,” Price said.
Hall said a man who has been a member of the congregation has donated the money necessary to put the system in. She said at the moment, the church is waiting for the parts to come from Belgium.
“As soon as it’s done, we’ll have him come in, he lives in Florida now. And we’ll dedicate a plaque with his wife’s name on it who passed away several years ago,” Hall said.