The Bells Toll for Thee

By Eileen Jevis/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
St. Peter’s Church starts first Catholic handbell choir in the Utica area

UTICA –– Handbells were first used in China over 5000 years ago to ring out tunes, although western civilization has long associated the sound of larger bells with the Christian church. In the 16th century, tower bell ringers started practicing on handbells which was far less limiting than practicing on huge bells in cold bell towers. The British Isles has long been known as the “Ringing Isles,” and in the 18th century, the composer Handel cited the bell as the English National Instrument. By the middle of the 19th century, bell ringing had become enormously popular in Britain. From 1855 to 1925, handbell ringing competitions took place in Manchester, and bands from throughout the North of England gathered to play on up to 200 bells. Handbells were probably first heard in the United States during the mid-19th century.

Many religions around the world make use of bells in their worship. In October, St. Peter’s Church purchased a set of 61 handbells from St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Whitesboro. The bells had been packed away for 15 years after the music director of St. Paul’s passed away.

Music directors Karen and Darren Pohorecki of St. Peter’s Church were members of the original handbell choir at St. Paul’s in 1984. When St. Peter’s first purchased the handbells, Pohorecki and his wife along, with three other choir members, performed handbell music for the parishioners. They now have 15 members in the handbell choir. “We appealed to the existing members of our choirs –– the adult choir and the teen choir, to give handbell ringing a try,” said Pohorecki. “We wanted to use people who could pick it up quickly in order to be ready to perform for the holidays. In the future, we will open it up to parishioners.” Karen and Darren Pohorecki along with his brother, who is also a choir member, were the only ones in the parish that had handbell experience. “We were interested in purchasing the handbells in order to open up a new ministry to people who feel that they don’t have the musical ability to be in a choir,” said Pohorecki. In order to play handbells, one only needs good timing ability and coordination. However, Pohorecki said it’s not as easy as it looks. “The music is regular music like that you would sing in a choir,” said Pohorecki. “Each note represents a bell. If a person has two bells, they only have to worry about two notes. If they don’t have the ability to read music, we marked the notes they need to play.”

Pohorecki has recruited handbell ringers of all ages. “We have juniors in high school in the choir and members in their sixties,” he said. “When we open it up to all the parishioners, we would like to have a youth handbell choir, a teen choir and an adult choir. All ages would be able to play.” Pohorecki has seen membership increase steadily. “We make sure that the members of the handbell choir are having fun,” said Pohorecki. They practice two hours per week and have three songs ready to perform for the Thanksgiving Mass. The handbells are played without musical or vocal accompaniment.

All the bells are not used at the same time. “It would be rare to use all 61 bells at once,” said Pohorecki. “It’s a five octave set. We start people out with one bell. When they feel comfortable with that, we move them to two bells and so on. For people like my wife and I who are comfortable with them, it’s possible to ring four bells at once,” he said. Pohorecki said that in order to fund the bell purchase, parishioners were given the option of purchasing a bell in memory of a family member or loved one. For each bell purchased, a memorial plaque is hung in the vestibule of the church. Of the 61 bells, there are only 20 left for purchase.

When the holidays are over, the parishioners will be invited to join the choir. “Anyone interested in playing will be offered a class. We will show them the music and how to ring the bells,” said Pohorecki. “If, as a result, we have more people than we need, we will use them as alternates. It would give us a nice flexibility for people’s schedules. It’s a nice blend of youth and adults in the music ministry,” he said.

The handbell ringers will perform at St. Peter’s Church in North Utica for the Thanksgiving Mass on Wednesday, Nov. 26 at 7 p.m., at the Christmas Masses on Dec. 24 at 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. and the Christmas morning Mass at 10:30 a.m.

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