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Back in Time: The Bells of Christ Church

The oldest treasure of the Cathedral are our bells, with the first four bells installed in the church tower in May of 1860. Calvin Fletcher wrote of the bells in his diary on June 7th, 1860, “thus furnishing a very beautiful peal, which was rung for services, for the first time, on Trinity Sunday.” The bells were given by members of the parish and thus inscribed with their names: Mrs. Harriet Stewart, Winston Noble, William H. Morrison, and R.S. and A. W. McOuat. In August four more bells were hung and on September 14th the tunes “Home Sweet Home” and “Old Hundred” were first played. The ninth and final bell was installed in 1890.

Our bells soon became a beloved part of the city. After necessary repairs to the steeple silenced the chimes for a season, the Indianapolis Daily Journal reported on November 21st, 1864, “The chime bells on Christ Church, after a long silence, while some work was being done on the steeple, awoke again the solemn stillness of the Sabbath yesterday, and the sweet anthem of praise rose upon the balmy air and floated quietly away, cheering the good, strengthening the weak, and softening the hearts of the wicked, till its reverberations died away in the distance.”

In 1873 Christ Church, not yet a Cathedral, was going through a particularly turbulent time. The nation was in a depression, starting with scandals with Credit Mobilizer and the failure of the Jay Cooke and Company bank. A new rector had just begun. In our music department there was strife and change. The music director was dismissed after only a year, having been given an incentive of $100 (around $2,000 in today’s money) to organize and train a boys’ and girls’ choir and failing. When the new choir director, Mr. Kennedy, was employed he was tasked with finding a chime ringer.

In the book, “The Little Church on the Circle”, Eli Lilly writes, “Few of our present members know that our bell tower was once inhabited by something other than pigeons. Yet during this rugged year of the panic of ‘73, a Spartan youth, of New Harmony, Indiana, Josephus Peasley, unable to get a suitable job to support himself completely while working his way through then Northwestern Christian University, became the chimer for Christ Church… To further accommodate his slender means, the rector Mr. E. A. Bradley, gave him permission to fit up the space in the tower over the entryway as sleeping quarters. Here he awoke on “many winter mornings” covered with snow! He lived in the tower a year or more.

“Later, in order to augment his finances, he taught school in Broad Ripple, walking to ring the bells at Christ Church each Sunday morning, there being no trains to the city on Sundays, and returning to his school early Monday.”

Always seen as the voice of the church the first weekly Bulletins published in 1924 were named The Chimes of Christ Church. Later the bulletin was renamed Christ Church Chimes.

The bells tolled as Abraham Lincoln’s body was taken to the state Capitol en route to its final resting place in Illinois in 1865. They continued to chime for many happy occasions. The Indianapolis Daily Journal marked the New Year in 1867 with, “The chimes of Christ Church tolled in solemn cadences, as old 1866 shivered in the midnight air of Monday… A merrier peal greeted the infant 1867, as he shook his curls into the face of the departing old man.”

For over 150 years these bells have continued to call to the people of Indianapolis. Their sound transcends time and all barriers of our humanity. The St. Dunstan’s Guild continues the art of change ringing to this day.