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Parishioners in Georgetown, Oak Orchard give new meaning to ‘Bells of St. Mary’

From left, Nancy Gauger, Alberta Turcio and Mary Williford "make a joyful noise unto the Lord." The bell choir consists of 12 members, but they are always looking for a few new faces. Dialog photo/Michael Short

OAK ORCHARD — The tones linger in the air almost like a softly-spoken prayer.

Parishioners of St. Michael the Archangel in Georgetown and Mary Mother of Peace Church in Oak Orchard have begun a popular handbell choir. The parish (both churches make up the parish) is known for its music ministry, although the handbell choir is a relatively new addition, beginning in September 2019.

That meant the choir was born into the crucible of COVID and the 12 bell choir members assumed a unique role. COVID restrictions limited the ability of traditional choirs to sing because of the fear of spreading the virus. Bell ringers, however, could play while wearing a mask and social distancing.

That would have been difficult, if not impossible, for traditional choirs. It meant that for people starved for music in the Mass, they could hear the clear, bright tones of the bells ringing out.

Rosemary Hoffman and Patricia Chandler practice a song. Dialog photo/Michael Short

The choir members found themselves much in demand and they have developed a repertoire of perhaps 50 or 60 different songs performed at Masses in both churches. It’s a combination of sacred and classical music performed alone or sometimes with piano or strings. They are currently working on a patriotic number.

Christmas and Easter are particularly busy times for the choir under the direction of Director of Music Ministries Paul Szczerowski. “We’ve come a long way in a short time,” he said. He said there are five levels of bell choir ability, sort of like ranking the difficulty of a white water rapid or a ski slope. He thinks the choir is currently a two, but working hard and getting better. “We try to challenge ourselves,” he said.

The motto of the choir is:  “Pain. Wait. Rise.”

Being in the choir is a commitment, but the members like to have fun and there’s some good-natured kidding at rehearsals about plans to open for Beyonce and “volunteering” new members. “It does take a bit of craziness to belong to a handbell choir,” Szczerowski said with a laugh.

Parish pastor Father Robert Coine has been very supportive and choir members hope to go “on the road” to play in nursing homes, assisted living facilities or other community locations.

7129 Bob Kirby, Ed Hoffman and Beth Kirby rehearse a number. The bell choir helped provide music during Mass when recent restrictions kept church choirs from being able to sing.
Dialog photos/Michael Short

“I have seen incredible growth in the number of parishioners moving into the area. I believe that many have chosen to become part of our parish not only because of our meaningful ministries, but also because of the beautiful music we offer at our liturgies,” said Father Coine. “Paul brought our first three octaves of bells to the choir several years ago, and now, with the addition of the fourth octave, we will provide a truly memorable liturgical experience for our parishioners.”

Parishioners have proven supportive, including “adopting” more bells for $250 each in order to give the choir a full four octaves. That means there are 48 bells of various tones and sizes played by the choir members. Every single bell was adopted.

The choir plays at both churches, although they can’t attend every Mass. New members are always welcome.

The group includes two married couples and a new member who is 93-years-old. “It just adds so much to the liturgy,” said choir member Bob Kirby. “Music can touch your soul,” he said.

Kirby believes the bells can bring a solemnity to the Mass and he feels that’s important. He prays before playing that the Holy Spirit will allow him to share the gift he has been given “so it will touch one heart and bring it closer to God’s grace.”

“I really enjoy doing it. It’s fun. I look forward to doing it,” said Patricia Chandler. “There is a certain fulfillment.”

“When the parishioners say it adds so much to the liturgy, that this is what it is supposed to be, it makes you feel good,” said Rosemary Hoffman. She said it makes her feel she “has done something to help them to worship God.”