Mt. Lebanon church ringers create a swinging celebration

Matthew Santoni
| Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012, 7:08 p.m.

In great, metallic waves of sound, the bells of Southminster Presbyterian Church in Mt. Lebanon rang out Saturday for their 10th anniversary celebration.

Ringers of the eight bells at Southminster, all cast between 1814 and 2000 in London by the same foundry that made the Liberty Bell and Big Ben, celebrated the anniversary of the bells' 2002 installation with performances of “change ringing.”

Unlike the distinct notes of traditional church-bell ringing, the change ringing style that originated in England uses several people in the bell tower swinging the bells through a full 360-degree circle, creating a continuous wall of sound, said Don Morrison, the church's ringing master.

“Normally, when you swing regular bells, you don't have a lot of control; you're just jangling the bells,” said Morrison, 58, of Mt. Lebanon. “These you can slow down or speed up.”

Standing in a circle in the bell tower, the ringers pull eight ropes leading to the loft above, where the bells rest open-side-up attached to huge wheels. When the ropes are pulled, the wheels turn, and the bells swing and ring.

By speeding up or slowing down how fast they pull, the ringers change where their bell sounds in the sequence. The resulting wave of sound seems like it's undulating, rising and falling without a discernible tune.

“It's fun, it's really an intellectual game,” said Beth Sinclair, 49, of Bethesda, Md., one of several change ringers visiting Mt. Lebanon this weekend for the anniversary. “Your goal is always to have it be as smooth and beautiful as you can.”

A ringer also has to be mindful of the slight delay from when the rope is yanked and when the bell rings.

“With guitar or drums, you get instant feedback on whether you're on-rhythm,” said ringer Nick Wells, 35, of Oakland. “Here it's like you're playing an instrument with a rubber band.”

Six of the bells originally hung at a church in England, and were moved to Southminster between 2000 and 2002 with the support of the Helen Ruth Henderson Estate. The oldest four were cast in 1815 by the Whitechapel Foundry of London. Southminster is the only church in Western Pennsylvania with a bell tower suitable for change ringing, Morrison said.

The anniversary celebration peaks Sunday afternoon, when the group will attempt a “peal:” a three-hour-long cycle through all possible arrangements of the eight bells, Morrison said.

Visitors can climb to the bell tower from noon to 1 p.m. Sunday.

Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5625 or

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