News

Cathedral's Bell Ringers Prepare for Busy Easter

Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
2 Apr 2015

Spectacular ceiling of the central belltower at St Mary's Cathedral

For the team of volunteer bellringers at St Mary's Cathedral, Easter is their busiest time and one of the most joyous, says Tower Captain, Murray-Luke Beard.

Throughout the year, the volunteers ring the bells at St Mary's for the 10.30 am Solemn Mass each Sunday, as well as for the noon Mass at the Cathedral on the first and third Wednesday of every month. They also practice each Thursday evening in the Cathedral bell tower from 6.15 until 8.15 pm when the two hours of pealing bells ringing out across the city has become a tradition and highlight for late night shoppers in the CBD.

Not only does St Mary's Cathedral have one of the largest and heaviest "ring," as sets of bells are known, in Australia, with the largest of the 14 bells weighing a massive 1741 kilograms, but St Mary's Basilica Society of Change Ringers is also the oldest ringing society in the country and dates back to 1844, just two years after the first Archbishop of Sydney, John Bede Polding's arrival in Australia.

The current set of bells at St Mary's is the third set to be installed in Cathedral's central tower and the most impressive. With a peal in C# Major, the 14 cast iron bells which range from 281 kg to the almost two tonnes largest tenor bell, were cast at Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London in 1985.

The bells of St Mary's and their distinctive peal are an integral part of Sydney life and much loved by Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

Tower Captain Murray-Luke Peard in the belltower of St Mary's Cathedral

Hung on a wheel to enable full circle ringing or change ring, a style developed in England in the 17th Century, each of the bells is rung by one person. That person in turn is part of a larger team or band of ringers which gives the distinctive musical peals we have grown to love.

However unlike most other music, the bells are rung to number permutations or changes rather than as tunes. Many of these permutations or "methods" date back hundreds of years and all always rung from memory rather than notes or scores.

In addition to change ringing of the bells of the Cathedral at the 10.30 am Solemn Mass each Sunday as well as at the 12-1 pm Mass on the first and third Wednesday of each month, the bells are also rung on significant religious as well as civic occasions such as Australia Day, Anzac Day, Remembrance Day and Christmas Day.
The bells are also rung for State Funerals, on important Feast Days, and by special arrangement at a number of weddings, christenings and funerals throughout the year.

However it is Easter when the St Mary's team of volunteer change ringers are very much in demand.

This year Murray-Luke along with nine other volunteer ringers will ring a set of 10 bells as part of the Holy Saturday Vigil Mass which will be celebrated by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP at St Mary's Cathedral at 7 pm on 4 April.

Some of St Mary's Cathedral change ringers in action

"We will be ringing the bells during key moments during the ring the bells during key moments during the Mass beginning with the Gloria. We will also be ringing the Eucharistic Prayer as well as also ringing after the Mass has finished," Murray-Luke says.

He describes the Vigil Mass on Holy Saturday with the full St Mary's Cathedral Choir and the ringingof the bells as a wonderful experience and celebration of great joy and expectation.

Although just 36, Murray-Luke who is an IT expert at the University of Sydney, capella sublima singer and musicologist, as well as having a degree in Medieval History, has been ringing the bells at St Mary's for the past seven years. Since mid 2013 he has also been Tower Captain.

What began as a hobby is now very much a passion.

"This is my second Easter as Tower Captain and like all the other ringers, we love what we do," he says.

The team of 10 ringing at the Vigil Mass on Saturday evening will also ring the bells on Sunday for the 10.30 am Solemn Mass and on Easter Monday, Murray-Luke and seven other volunteers will need all their stamina when they embark on the Cathedral's traditional full peal which will ring out across the city from 1 pm until 5 pm.

"We'll be ringing without a break for four hours so fitness is important," he says adding that for the majority of the team fitness is not an issue. "When you climb 120 stairs into the belfry several times each week, you keep pretty fit," he says.

St Mary's Cathedral's bells will be rung at Holy Saturday's Vigil Mass, Sunday's Solemn High Mass with a full peal of four hours on Easter Monday

But while stamina and fitness is important, physical strength is not as the bells are so well balanced, to be a good bell ringer what is needed most is coordination and a love of what used to be known as the art of campanology.

The Cathedral's team of volunteer change ringers range in age from just 20 to 70.

"We are always on the lookout for new ringers and if anyone is interested, as long as they are over 12 years of age, they should get in touch with the Cathedral," he says.

Training takes about six weeks and opens up an entire new world with many of the Cathedral's change ringers while on overseas holidays offered the chance to ring the bells at many of the world's most famous cathedrals including Britain's St Paul's Cathedral and St Patrick's in New York.

To find out more about change ringing and joining the team at St Mary's Cathedral email stmarysbells@gmail.com