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‘Bells of Peace’ to ring in troubled neighborhood

“Bells of Peace,” meet the “Murder Factory.”

A rare and vintage electronic carillon, a Kansas City treasure known as the Bells of Peace, first rang from the Liberty Memorial in 1961.

It was a gift from Joyce C. Hall for the memorial’s rededication, attended by Presidents Truman and Eisenhower. The carillon, a collection of “bells” played from a keyboard, has twice fallen silent, a victim of its somewhat old-school technology.

So maybe it’s appropriate this spring that the Bells of Peace once again are being resurrected. But this time it’s away from downtown, in a part of the central city dubbed Kansas City’s Murder Factory in a series by The Star, which found the 64130 ZIP code was home to more convicted murderers than any other in the state.

Just last week, police responded to reports of gunfire one evening and found the body of a 21-year-old man in a front yard near 55th and Euclid streets, three blocks from the limestone bell tower, five stories tall, of St. Therese Little Flower Church.

No bell was ever installed at the church, built in 1948. But soon four loudspeaker “horns” will be installed in the tower, and the carillon will chime on the hour and regularly serenade the neighborhood with its orchestra of 405 “bells,” actually brass rods. How soon depends on whether volunteers reviving the carillon can coax sound from some obstinately quiet rods.

“This is a thing of beauty,” said the Rev. Ernie Davis, pastor at St. Therese. “It’s a reminder of the divine, of God’s presence.”

No doubt people’s lives in these city neighborhoods are troubled by poverty and violence and struggles of all kinds, he said. The bells will be a signal of hope, Davis said.

“I don’t know if you could do a scientific experiment to prove something like the bells could have an impact,” he said. “But I can imagine that for someone losing hope or for someone with a gun in his pocket, this might save a life.”

Magical thinking? Davis doesn’t think so. But he’s certain of another positive outcome: The aural splendor of the carillon will draw visitors east across Troost Avenue, some for carillon concerts, some who want to learn to play the bells’ organ-like keyboard.

“The bells can be another crack in the great divide of Troost,” Davis said. “There is beauty left in Blue Hills. You can meet good people here.”

This electronic carillon differs from a traditional carillon, which uses large bells and hammers mechanically connected to a keyboard. In this case, the long brass rods are housed in metal cabinets: four tall ones on the floor and five smaller cases hanging on the wall in the church basement.

The rods are struck and amplified with the help of vacuum tube technology (think old TVs and radios), low-voltage currents and birds-nest wiring. A Pennsylvania company built just six such carillons; only three are believed still in use.

“The idea is to play the minor bells against the huskier bells, the big stuff,” said Bruce Prince-Joseph, St. Therese’s organist and artist-in-residence, on a recent afternoon.

He positioned himself at the console, set in a small alcove in the sanctuary, to play a portion of “What Child Is This?” and a Mozart sonata.

The bells ring only inside the church for now. The stops on the carillon’s console are labeled with bell types: Celestial Harp Bells, English Bells, Flemish Bells, Miller Memorial Chimes and others.

“It’s the same concept as an organ except you can’t hold the keys very long, or you’ll burn out the solenoids,” he said.

Prince-Joseph is a world-renowned organist and for more than two decades was the keyboardist for the New York Philharmonic. He and the Rev. Jeff Hon, pastor of New Song Church in the Northland, have spearheaded the revival of the carillon — twice. They see it not only as a Kansas City treasure but a national one.

“The ‘bells’ are real,” Hon said, “they’ve just got a different shape. This isn’t reproduced sound. The strikers strike the rods, and the rods vibrate. It’s mechanical and electronic.”

The carillon rang from the Liberty Memorial for about 15 years before it fell into disrepair. In the early 1990s, Prince-Joseph was alerted to the carillon’s console, discovered by a local organ company representative at a farm auction. It was like an organ console, but not quite.

“I thought, ‘What on earth is this?’ I had never seen anything like it,” Prince-Joseph said.

The link was made to the Bells of Peace at the memorial, where officials were ready to discard the rest of the carillon’s equipment. At the time, Prince-Joseph was music director at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in downtown Kansas City. St. Mary’s pastor agreed that Prince-Joseph and friends, including Hon, should attempt an installation there.

It took two years. The horns and most of the wiring plans had been lost. Replacement tubes were hard to come by, as was expertise to piece it all together. Fortunately, a St. Mary’s member, Richard McDonald, was experienced in tube electronics.

“He had nothing but old blueprints to work from,” Hon said. “He had to take a lot of stabs in the dark.”

In 1994, the carillon rang again, and for the next 15 years, across downtown. Among the most appreciative audiences were the inmates at the nearby Jackson County jail. If they didn’t hear the bells chime on the hour, or if the carillon didn’t play its weekly Thursday concert, they would ask detention officers to call St. Mary’s to find out what was wrong.

About two years ago, the carillon was taken out of service as St. Mary’s underwent renovations. It was time for another move. Prince-Joseph, keenly interested in saving the carillon, thought St. Therese would be the perfect new home. Davis and Hon agreed, and St. Mary’s gave its blessing.

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A few months into the installation at St. Therese, McDonald, who again was enlisted to help, died suddenly. Hon is trying to complete the work, with the assistance of electrical engineer Brian Haupt, but they have hit a snag.

A large number of the bells, including the robust Flemish bells, refuse to ring, and they aren’t sure why. Hon said he would welcome input from anyone with ideas, particularly those with experience in vacuum tube and amplification technology from the 1950s and ’60s.

Initially the hope was for a carillon concert on Easter. But although many of the bells are working, Davis and the others didn’t want to showcase the carillon until it was in full voice.

Davis has confidence the carillon’s final crankiness will be resolved and the parish, active in the community, will be able to present its new gift. St. Therese serves about 220 families, provides charitable ministries including a food pantry and utility assistance and offers a Gospel Mass and a form of “High Mass” on Sundays. Its former parish school houses Hogan Preparatory Academy Middle School.

“I think that St. Therese — not the church, but the saint — is interested,” Davis said. “I think she’s pulling strings.”

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