January 26, 2013

The Ringing of the Church Bells in My Youth

The Angelus bell rang three times a day in our Polish Catholic neighborhood, six o'clock in the morning, at noon and again at six o'clock in the evening. This was the call to prayer, all Catholics stopped what they were doing and said a prayer.

This is what the bell tower looked like when I was a teenager.

This is what the bell tower looks like in 2013.

On Sunday mornings, the peal of the bells announced that mass would be starting in five minutes. No one wanted to be late for Sunday mass because the older Polish ladies would give you the stink eye if you walked in late. Even though, I lived just around the corner from the church, I was the recipient of the stink eye more than once. 

The sound of the Wedding Bells ringing would have all of the neighborhood children running to the church to see what the bride and bridesmaids looked like as they exited the church. That was such a happy sound.

Everyone seemed to become quiet when the first bong of the Death Knell sounded. The bell was rung slowly, bong, pause, bong, pause. We would count as the bell tolled, nine rings for the death of a man, six rings for a woman and three rings for a child. A short pause and every ring after that announced the age of the deceased. Many times the children were sent to the church to wait for the bell ringer to ask who died.

A half block east of the church was the funeral parlor, and out of necessity a custom was established to get the casket to the church. You see it was unrealistic for the casket to be placed in the hearse and driven a half block to the church. So on the day of the burial everyone parked by the church including the hearse and walked to the funeral parlor. 

To get the casket to the church, a procession from the funeral parlor to the church took place by walking down the middle of the street while the bell ringer tolled the Funeral Bell until the procession entered the church.  I disliked this procession, out of respect people who were not attending the funeral would stand on the sidewalk and watch as the procession made its way toward the church. I always felt like I was in a parade. The funeral home is no longer in business, thank goodness that custom is finished.

Sometime in the late 1960's the bell ringer passed away, and with it went the old traditions, an automated system to ring the bell was installed. My cousin has told me that now the only time the bell rings is to announce mass will start in five minutes and the Funeral Bell still tolls while the casket enters and exits the church.

“For bells are the voice of the church; They have tones that touch and search The hearts of young and old.” 
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Quotes


  1. As annoying as church bells and grandfather clocks can be, they always take us back to a time that is eternal. Thanks for sharing your church and neighborhood traditions. So very different from mine here in the Deep South.

  2. The sound of church bells (and train whistles) have always been peaceful and deeply evocative for me...it's a pity that most church bells are merely decorative now, replaced by audio recordings.

  3. I loved reading of this wonderful bell tradition. Too bad the bell ringer wasn't replaced with another person who learned it. So sad. Thank you for sharing this with us. What a real community you must have grown up in. Sorry you were the recipient of the stink eye from time to time. lol

  4. Wonderful post about the bells! I love the sense of community surrounding your church. Even though I am Baptist, I know exactly what you mean by getting the stink eye many times as a child!

  5. I totally missed that tradition of getting the stink eye! I did enjoy this post very much.

  6. The Catholic church is 3 blocks from my house...one of my favorite things is at 1200 to be outside, hear the bells then the songs that follow...I sing along and it is so peaceful.
    One of the favorite things about my neighborhood.