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Clear as a Bell: Fountain Street Church Bells Chime Through Downtown

Bronze Cast bells prior to installation at Fountain Street Church circa 1976

Bronze Cast bells prior to installation at Fountain Street Church circa 1976 /Heather Barretta, FSC

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It is one of the most instantly recognizable points on the Grand Rapid skyline. Not as tall as the mighty McKay Tower or iconic as the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, but it is an entirely unique architectural wonder. The bell-tower at Fountain Street Church is a magisterial and tiered tower capped with a pyramid that points to glorious heights.

To downtown Grand Rapidians, the sounds coming from the church's belltower may be as instantly recognizable as its baroque appearance among the city's varied architecture. Every weekday, the bells at FSC sound at noon, a reminder to downtowners the afternoon has begun. It cuts through the daily hum of background noise that is city life at midday. On weekends, the bells chime before and after Sunday service, and what marriage ceremony would be complete without the joyful wedding bells announcing the happy couple's nuptials?

The original set of six bronze-cast, swinging bells were donated to the church in 1976. However, due to an "act of God" the bells did not always ring. Ten years ago in 2000, the belltower was silent due to an unlucky lightning strike that wreaked havoc on the computerized electrical system that operated the bells. A new $70,000 system was recently installed after years of fundraising to have the bell's operating system upgraded.

“We are still very concerned about lightning, but we have had surge protectors installed and have taken other precautionary measures,” said Heather Baretta, FSC's spokesperson.

John Shweizer welcomed the upgrade. Shweizer is in charge of operating the computer system that tells the belltower's elaborate mechanical system what to play. He is commonly referred to as “Quasimodo” as an allusion to The Hunchback of Notre Dame's belltower-dwelling protagonist.

“I can program the bells remotely without having to go up in the tower,” which he describes as being “scary with spiral wooden steps and pigeon droppings.”

The selection of tunes available is vast and varied. You may happen to hear a snippet of the Beatles "Let it Be" or a Bob Dylan song while strolling downtown.

"We can play anything from 'Amazing Grace' to 'Turkey in the Straw,'" said FSC member Kevin Beedon.

For some, the experience of ringing bells is aesthetic, a gentle reminder of powers greater than ourselves and higher purposes in life. To downtown and Heritage Hill residents, the bells can be a literal rude awakening when they prefer to sleep late or savor the peace and quiet of a Sunday morning.

When asked how she likes the sound of the bells, Carolyn Morrison, a FSC attendee, said "They're too loud, reverberating off the buildings like that. I don't like anything loud unless it's Pink Floyd."

Those familiar with Pink Floyd's 1973 masterwork Dark Side of the Moon know the opening of the song "Time" is a cacophony of clanging, clattering alarm clocks and bells.

Regardless of how one may feel about the bells, Shweizer is enthusiastic. "I feel like it's communication through the air," he said with a broad smile that is convincing as much as it is infectious. "Hearing those bells give me a thrilling feeling."

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Great story, Steven!

I wonder how many other churches in town have simliar bell systems - I am now dreaming up large-scale city-wide bell compositions. I wonder if something like that has happened before?

Thanks George. 

I was wondering if the other Churches have their bells coordinated so they don't overlap, but I was never able to get a clear answer on that.  But, yeah, a city wide synchronized bell composition would be genius.  That is a fantastic idea.  True Floydian 5.1 surround sound!