Saint Mark's Bell Ringers

In our tower we have a complete ring of eight bells which are rung to changes in the traditional English manner. Founded in 1999, the Philadelphia Guild of Change Ringers provides ringing in the only two bell towers in Philadelphia that are equipped for English change-ringing: Saint Mark's and the Church of Saint Martin-in-the-Fields in Chestnut Hill. In addition to the two towers in Philadelphia there is a nearby tower in New Castle, Del., where the Guild occasionally rings. All together there are nearly 50 towers in all of North America, and world-wide there are about 5,500 towers, most of which are in England.

Ringing is a team effort and is as much, or more, a mental exercise as it is physical. Because of how well-balanced the bells are, the physical side of ringing comprises more technique and coordination than strength - even with bells weighing as much as a ton - or more. Our tenor bell - the heaviest in our set of bells - weighs 2006 pounds. People of all ages, sizes, and genders are involved in ringing, and our own band of bell ringers reflects that diversity.

If you are interested in finding out about ringing, either to satisfy your curiosity, or to pursue it as an art, you are welcome to come up to the tower when the bells are being rung, before or after the High Mass on Sundays, or you may wish to join the ringers for a practice night.  The most up-to-date information on ringing schedules and practices can be found on the Guild's website.


In 1876, Saint Mark's raised money from the parish and installed four bells of what was to be a complete ring of eight bells in its church tower. The bells had been ordered from the Whitechapel Bell foundry in London, the same foundry that had cast the original Liberty Bell. In 1878, the additional four bells were purchased by the church and the entire eight bells were in place.

Over the decades the wooden wheels and fittings began to crack and decay and the iron fittings began to rust. We found out that the iron staples, which had been cast into the tops of the bells, were in danger of cracking the bells as the staples rusted and expanded. Worse, we found that the old bell frame had become unstable and could present a hazard.

As a matter of good stewardship of this marvelous ring of bells and to ensure their safety and the safety of those using the church, the parish resolved to restore the bells. With the raising of funds from members of parish, we were able to begin the restoration of our bells, completed in June 1999.

Bell Ringing

Change-ringing bells come in a "ring" or set of bells. A ring usually consists of between 4 and 12 bells; but most typically 8 as are ours. The bells in a ring vary in size, with the smaller bells having a higher pitch, and the larger a deeper sound. They are hung in frames that allow them to swing through 360 degrees. Attached to each bell is a wooden wheel with a rope running around it. The wheel gives leverage to ring the bell. The bells ring with their mouths "up" at the top arc of their flight. They are controlled by a ringer, who pulls the rope to swing the bell through a full circle until it is in the upward position again.

The bells are arranged in the frame so that the ropes hang in a circle in the ringing chamber below - this is where the ringers stand - in a circle, facing each other so they can see the actions and movements of all the other ringers. The ropes have a brightly colored "sally", colored wool woven into the rope strands that show the ringer where he or she must catch the rope while ringing. Our sallys are red and blue representing the martyr apostle Mark and Our Lady.

It can take up to two seconds for a bell to rotate to the up position again. This makes them unsuitable for playing melodies or hymns. However, the bells can be made to follow one another in order, each ringing once before the first rings again. This is what is known as change ringing: striking the bells in precise orders that are mapped out using rows of numbers. No bell moves more than one place in each row at a time. Ringing in this manner creates specific rhythms and patterns of sound.

When a bell has been "rung up", or "raised" it is resting, mouth up, ready to be pulled over, it is referred to as being "set". This means that the person who has rung up the bell has got it to the balance point and has allowed it to go carefully over past the balance point. At the top of the headstock, there is a substantial wooden plank, made of ash, called a "stay". When the bell is mouth up, the stay, which had been on the top is now underneath. In the pit below where the bell swings is a simple mechanism that the stay touches. It is called a "slider".

The slider is engaged by the stay and slides past the center point and stops. It can only slide a short distance in either direction. This enables the ringer to bring his or her bell up to the balance and gently beyond, where the stay engages with the slider and stops the bell just past its balance point. This allows the ringer to put up the rope and leaves the bell ready to be rung.

When the Bell has turned full circle in one direction, the rope is unwound from the wheel and comes down through the ceiling of the ringing room. When the Bell turns full circle in the other direction, the rope is taken up on the wheel and goes up into the ceiling leaving the tail end behind.

The left hand of the ringer (if the ringer is right handed, otherwise it's the other way 'round) grasps the tail end of the rope. The left hand never lets go of the tail end of the rope all the while the bell is being rung.

When the bell turns full circle and the rope is taken up, the ringer must join his/her right hand above the left and follow the bell as it turns, keeping tension on the rope. The idea of keeping tension on the rope is very important in that if the rope is allowed to go even the slightest bit loose it tends to whip and slither and slap around.

Here is a description of how it feels to ring. The bell has been pulled off the balance and the wheel is turning. The ringer describes the feel of the rope:

I am joining my right hand with my left on the rope and I follow the bell up.

It is almost like a living thing, this bell, as she strongly pulls the rope up through the little hole in the ceiling. Bells are referred to as "she" by ringers, much the same as a sailor refers to his ship. I can see why. This bell is like a living thing.

I can feel the strong pull of the bell, but then it dies - the pull diminishes - as the bell reaches the top of her circle. As the rope reaches its limit and the pull of the bell diminishes, the bell reaches the balance point and there she comes to rest, just at the balance point. Here I am standing, feet flat on the floor, arms stretched to the limit, the tail end of the rope in my hands at the end of my outstretched arms, and several hundred pounds of bell metal just resting, waiting for me to pull. I could stand like this for minutes and the bell will obey and stay at rest, or I can pull - just a little bit - and the bell will fall.

Learning to ring takes time and dedication, but is rewarding as a service to the church as well as a personal accomplishment.

Methods and Peals

Some time 350 to 400 years ago bell ringers in England found out that if you keep swinging the bell and get it to a position where it is balanced, mouth facing up, you can control the striking of the bell very accurately as opposed to being a prisoner of a freely swinging bell.

This ability to ring the bell full circle, catch it at the balance, and then pull it off a little faster or slower to control the striking of the bell led to the next step which was to get a team of people together in a bell tower and ring the bells together.

This team of people ringing a set of bells is called a "band" of ringers. Bells in church steeples are tuned to a musical scale - "do", "re", "me", "fa", etc... The natural thing for a band of ringers to do would be to ring the scale. Apparently they chose to ring from the highest note to the lowest note, each bell striking its note distinctly separate from the others - "do", "ti", "la", "sol", "fa", "mi", etc. This ringing down the scale is called "Rounds".

The lightest bell is called the Treble and heaviest is called the Tenor.

The next step in the evolution of ringing was for the leader of the band, called the "conductor" to tell the ringers of a pair of bells to change places every so often. For example, when six bells are ringing rounds, the conductor may tell the third and fourth bells to change places. So, "do", "ti", "la", "sol", "fa", "mi", now becomes "do", "ti", "sol", "la", "fa", "mi". To make it easier to read, change ringers use a numerical notation. The Treble is called "1"; the next heavier bell is called "2", etc. So, Rounds would look like 123456, and the change called, above, by the conductor would look like 124356. This method of directing pairs of bells to change places is called "Call Changes".

Finally, the last step in the evolution of change ringing occurred about 350 years ago. This was called "Method Ringing". In Method Ringing, most or all of the bells change places each time all six, or eight, or whatever the number of the bells, are rung. Instead of the changes being called by the conductor, the ringers learn to strike their bells in pre-established patterns, "methods".

The various methods have evocative names such as Norwich, Plain Bob, Grandsire, Cambridge, Kent, and the like.

Experienced ringers will sometimes ring peals: 5,000 or more rows without repeating, or quarter-peals: 1,200 or more rows without repeating. Peals usually last about 2-3/4 hours; quarter peals for about 35 to 40 minutes; and may be rung for special occasions, for example, anniversaries, funerals, weddings, and national or church holidays.