Eden Church bells chime again in Jefferson Park

by Sean Keenehan

Christmas bells are ringing again at Eden United Church of Christ, 5051 W Gunnison St.

The church has replaced its broken analog carillon with a new digital carillon system just in time for the holidays.

“I wanted it to be playing for the Christmas Eve service and so did several other people,” Eden’s Pastor Steve Angel said. “Christmastime is an important time for the bells, because we play Christmas songs and people really love to hear them.”

Eden’s original Schulmerich Quadrabell II-D carillon unit was installed in 1988 with funds that were raised by the women’s organization Daughters of Eden. Following months of malfunctions this past summer, the system stopped working in late August.

The church had a difficult time finding replacement parts for the old device and initial attempts to fix the machine were unsuccessful. A group of congregation members led by church deacons Bob Decker and Gene Schnarr teamed up and researched potential replacement units. The church selected the Schulmerich g5 Series model carillon due to the system’s usability, programmable features, internal song library and sound quality, as well as Eden’s familiarity with the company.

“The group said, ‘Let’s stay with what we have already with that vendor, because we’re used to having that quality,’” Angel said. “This is a system that we can grow with. There’s so many variations of what you can do.”

Considering the original carillon’s horn speakers had rested on top of Eden’s 4-story-tall bell tower since the system was installed, the church decided that it would be a “sound investment” to purchase new amplification for the new carillon.

“To turn around and put in a new modern piece of equipment and keep the old speakers didn’t seem like the right thing to do,” said Bob Decker, chairman of Eden’s diaconate committee. “If the old machine went out, then maybe the old speakers are going to go out. So we decided to put in new speakers right away too so that the whole system is all brand new and we don’t have to worry about it breaking down because of age.”

The purchase of a new carillon unit with a new set of four horn speakers was approved by the Eden’s Church Council in October. With the total cost of the new carillon system valued at $12,500, the church launched a fundraising campaign titled “Keep Eden’s Bells Ringing” in order to secure funding. Eden’s promoted the campaign through its mailing list and an online Facebook post targeted toward select individuals and organizations.

“It was very important to me, in keeping with building and deepening new relationships, that this wasn’t just some kind of a spam solicitation,” Eden’s Minister of Congregational Development the Reverend Jacki Belile said.

Working from the inside out proved to pay off for the church. In less than two months, Eden’s surpassed its $12,500 fundraising goal and was able to replace its broken carillon.

“We had quite a few people from the community donate to it and a lot of it was just by word of mouth, especially for our elders,” Angel said. “I was amazed.”

According to Belile, a breakdown of contributors revealed about a 50-50 split between current church members and a combination of former church members and friends of the congregation.

“We got calls from neighbors saying, ‘We miss the bells, what’s going on with the bells?’” Belile said. “We’ve really turned our attention outward to the neighborhood and it was touching that so many people outside of our own membership reached out to us. The partnership in replacing the carillon feels like really sweet evidence that those relationships are in fact deepening. For us, having it ready by Christmas is our way of saying ‘Merry Christmas’ to the neighborhood.”

Whereas Eden’s old carillon was limited to about 50 to 60 songs on continuous loop tapes, the new computer-driven carillon contains an internal database of about 750 songs that the church can play, which will offer less musical repetition and more variety. The new system can also be programmed for a year in advance and can be operated by a remote control.

“I guess we needed to get into the 21st century with the computers,” said Gene Schnarr, a member of Eden’s diaconate committee and head of the scholarship committee.

Schnarr and Decker have served a longtime role at Eden’s maintaining the church’s carillon, including keeping correct time for the carillon’s hourly clock chime and switching out music cartridges. Now that the new carillon is up and running at Eden’s, Schnarr and Decker are faced with the technological challenges of learning how to operate and manage the new device.

“It’s kind of simple in a way and yet it’s complicated because there are so many things you can do with it,” Decker said. “It’s like going from a mechanical typewriter to an electric one: It does the same thing, but you have more options. I’m going to have a whole lot of learning to do.”

The carillon at Eden’s church tolls an hourly Westminster Chime from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week, and plays three to four songs or hymns daily at 9 a.m., noon and 6 p.m. Aside from playing music, the carillon is also used to play the sound of tolling bells, often at random times of the day, upon the death of a church member and during funeral ceremonies.

“We had a system where we would ring the bells a certain way, and the people in the neighborhood would hear it, and then they would call the church to find out who died,” Decker said. “We still do that, except now we do it mechanically.”
Eden’s still houses two functioning metallic manual bells in its bell tower. According to Schnarr, the larger bell of the pair was installed upon construction of the church in 1928.

Ushers still ring the old rope-pulled bells before Sunday services via long attached cords that hang down from the tower through the second level ceiling of the church.

“Prior to the carillon, that’s how you told someone in the neighborhood that church was going to begin or someone had passed away,” Schnarr said. “It was a public address system with bells. And it still is.”

Installing the new digital carillon system was a two-day process that took place between Dec. 13 and 14. Rewiring the new speakers and removing the old speakers required Angel to make numerous trips up and down the bell tower’s narrow multi-tiered ladder hatch in order to access the tower’s snow- and ice-covered rooftop. Angel used ropes to pull the old speakers down from the roof through the internal hatch and to pull the carillon’s new speakers up onto the roof.

“I started saying, ‘This Angel can’t fly,’” Angel said.

While the old carillon machine has been discarded, Eden’s will donate about 20 carillon tapes to Mayfair Presbyterian Church, 4358 W Ainslie St.

“This past year we just seemed to be growing with other churches,” Angel said. “And I think that’s going to be the church’s strength, to grow together, no matter what denomination or non-denomination you are. That’s the way it has been since the old days here on the Northwest Side, is that they tried to help one another because they were all in the same kind of spot.”

According to Angel and Belile, a contribution to Eden’s carillon fundraiser from the Congregational Church of Jefferson Park, 5320 W Giddings St., further demonstrates the bigger picture of how church communities with limited resources can show support for one another.

“It’s an era where all kinds of non-profit organizations, and not just churches, are having to sort of rethink old paradigms and doing things alone, and figure out how we can help each other,” said Belile. “So we’re grateful to have an extra boost of inspiration that another church stepped in.”

Eden’s will install a plaque in acknowledgement of all those who donated to its carillon campaign and the church also plans to hold an event to dedicate the new system at a date to be announced. Any excess carillon donations that the church receives will be used to benefit Eden’s music program.

“I realized how much influence something so simple is: A bell tolling in a neighborhood,” Angel said. “And it almost gives me a feeling that it gives some cohesiveness to the community. ‘As long as the bells ring, they’re okay.’ I think that it speaks well of the community, just the goodwill that is in Jefferson Park in general. I see it all the time. We want things to be right, we want things to work right and we want to feel like community. I think that’s the strongest thing and hopefully Eden can be a part of that feeling of community.”