Look to! The bells of the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity

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Photo: Photo by Ruby Pratka

The bells of Holy Trinity, the oldest change-ringing bells in Canada, were installed in the Cathedral in 1830. They were made by Whitechapel Bell Foundry, in London, England, which also cast Big Ben and the Liberty Bell. The largest of the Holy Trinity bells, the tenor, weighs 1,600 pounds; the smallest, the treble, weighs 545 pounds.

It's Wednesday evening in the bell tower of the Anglican Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Vieux-Québec. About a dozen men and women arrive chatting, mostly in French. A voice, speaking English, cuts through the discussion.
"Look to!"

The ringers snap to attention, taking hold of the ropes leading to the heavy bronze bells 60 feet and two levels above their heads. The bells, the lightest of which weighs 545 pounds, are not to be toyed with.
"Treble's going ... she's gone!"

The highest-pitched bell rings out over the Old Town, followed in descending order by its seven sisters. The ringers transition into more complex sequences of notes, interlocking patterns dating back to England in the 1500s. The ringers are carrying on a Quebec City tradition dating back to 1830.

"Someone who was ringing at the time of Queen Elizabeth I could ring with us today," says ringer Douglas Kitson, wearing a t-shirt with the words "ringing nerd" on the front. "Change ringing" is a technique of intricate, carefully spaced bell ringing that is unique to the Anglican Church. It is practised in only seven churches in Canada, and two of those are in Quebec City - Holy Trinity and St. Matthew's on Saint-Jean street, now a branch of the municipal library.

At Holy Trinity, commands for the bells are given in English but the official language of the bell tower - as announced on a large notice on the wall - is French. About half the current ringers are Francophone. "We're the only bilingual French-English bell tower in North America," says bell captain Isabelle Couture. And change ringing, she says, has a "very special language" all its own.

"Stand next!" calls the ringing master. The scale finishes and the bells abruptly fall silent. Ringing looks like an athletic endeavour - following the bell rope, pulling with your arms (and abs) and at times rising on tiptoe to move with the bell - but ringers say patience, timing and coordination matter far more than brute strength.

"I've seen 10-, 11- and 12-year-old kids ringing in England," says Australian-born Kitson, who has been part of the Quebec City guild for 15 years. "What you really need is patience, patience and patience. Ringing is a different skill from anything you've ever done before."

The youngest ringers in the Quebec City Guild of Change Ringers are in their early twenties, the oldest are retirees. Many of them became ringers by chance, and ringing quickly became a passion.

"I was taking a guided tour of Quebec's religious heritage, and the guide was explaining the differences between Catholic and Anglican churches, and Douglas (Kitson) happened to be giving a demonstration," says ringer René Moisan. "He explained everything, and I was in love with ringing from the beginning."

Couture discovered ringing in much the same way. "Playing tourist," in her words, in Vieux-Québec, she happened upon a ringing demonstration. "I couldn't understand how they could ring together without saying anything," she remembers. "It looks easy when you watch, but then the rope jumps out of your hand at first and you don't have time to think ... normally you learn an instrument and then work your way up to the symphony, but this is like learning your instrument while playing with the symphony!"
Couture has rung in towers all over North America, from Toronto to Boston to New York to Charleston, South Carolina. "It's a great way to travel," she says. "Everywhere I went, I was welcomed and helped by more experienced ringers." For Couture, change ringing "is something to be proud of, like any musician with their instrument."

Kitson says those who ring for religious reasons are a minority in the ringing community. "I'm an atheist, but I spend more time in church towers than any Christian I know," Kitson says with a laugh. He and Couture, at least, ring for fun. "I ring with a group at the Old North Church in Boston where there are at least five Jews and an equal number of atheists. I've rung with blind people and people with severe mental retardation. Ringers are the most heterogeneous group I've ever seen."

"Ringing brings people from all faiths and all professions," adds Couture. "I've been ringing for six years, which makes me young, in ringing years," says Moisan, 66. "It's a real mental workout, a significant physical workout, and above all, I'm with wonderful people."

If you are interested in learning more about change ringing, please contact bell captain Isabelle Couture ([email protected]).