When Pastor Mathew Vik hears the familiar tones of a hymn chime across the Fort Atkinson hills, sometimes it takes a moment for him to realize, “Oh, yes, that’s our carillon.”
The new digital carillon at St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Fort Atkinson was installed at the turn of the year, thanks to an anonymous $10,000 donation from a member of the congregation.
This marks one of the biggest changes at the church since its big remodeling in 2005 and 2006, which modernized and expanded the building, and made it more handicap-accessible.
”We had a member come forward who wanted to do something for the community as it dealt with the traumatic effects of COVID-19,” said Terry Schwalenberg, a church elder who researched the purchase on behalf of the church and helped to bring this dream to fruition. “They thought bringing back the carillon at our church would be uplifting for church members and anyone in the community who heard it.”
St. Paul’s, built in 1901, originally relied on physical church bells. While the original bells have continued to be played, in 1975 the church added an electronic carillon system which played recordings of hymns.
By 2008, Schwalenberg said, this system was wearing out. The church had it fixed and it ran for a few more years, but it already had seen considerable wear and tear, and between 2010 and 2013 it was deemed irreparable.
For close to a decade, the church had no carillon and the congregation seemed content to go without.
Then came this past pandemic year when people around the globe were looking for ways to spread hope in some of the darkest times the world had seen in recent history.
“It’s well known that music is healing,” Schwalenberg said. “(Our benefactor) wanted to share that hope and that healing — not just with the church but with the whole community. I know it always raised my spirits.”
“It’s a way of engaging the community and spreading joy,” Vik added.
The pastor said the sound continues to surprise and delight him, as this only is his sixth year with St. Paul’s and he never had the opportunity to hear the old carillon system.
“And those old familiar hymns have additional meaning for people of faith,” Schwalenberg said.
Pastor Vik said he was blown away when a longtime church member approached church leadership about funding a new carillon.
Schwalenberg took on the responsibility of researching different systems to make sure St. Paul’s got the right one to suit its needs.
The church settled on a Millennium AX Electronic Carillon system from Chime Master. It includes high definition bell sounds recorded from actual cast bronze bells, paired with high-definition speakers, to provide the convincing sound of actual cast bells. The new digital model is an upgrade on the old system which played a limited number of recordings.
This one has a digital library of several thousand songs, each with several different instrumentation arrangements.
Controllers can choose to play traditional English cast bronze bells, chimes, carillon or several other bell instruments, including concert harp bells.
The system even allows controllers to combine different types of bells on a particular song.
“Our hope is that these will provide beautiful renditions of well-known hymns that glorify God and remind us of the hope and provision he provides,” Vik said.
The new system arrived in December and a group of church members worked to install it over Christmas break.
As with the monetary donor, those who did the work to install the system wanted no special recognition, assisting merely for the work’s intrinsic reward.
The church has been breaking in the new system gradually.
As of now, St. Paul’s is playing music on the new carillon only on Sundays, between the church’s early and late worship services.
In the near future, the church is looking to expand opportunities for playing the music, adding mini-concerts at lunchtime on weekdays and when the church’s school dismisses students each afternoon.
The response from the church community has been extremely positive, Vik and Schwalenberg commented. It’s been an unexpected boon for some of the church’s newer members, and for the longtime members it’s been somewhat nostalgic.
“We’ll hear them say, ‘Oh man, I’ve missed that,’” Vik said.
The controls for the carillon are located in a room behind the historic church sanctuary, up behind the choir loft and the original pipe organ which still serves the church.
The horns through which the new system plays are located up a winding stairwell in the old church tower, where the church’s massive bells hang. These bells, sounded at every church service and occasions like funerals, still are used on a regular basis.
The system has a built-in delay of nine minutes, giving people a chance to exit the church tower before the bells ring.
“You don’t want to be up here when they ring,” Schwalenberg said with a smile. “It’s overpowering.”
Vik said he hopes the carillon becomes a fixture for the community as a whole, bringing awareness of the hope God gives.
“It is our prayer that these beautiful and meaningful songs emanating from our bell tower would help us remember the goodness of Jesus, that as we listen our eyes are raised up to the cross, and we are reminded of Jesus’ precious sacrifice for the sins of the world,” the pastor said. “I pray that through these songs, people are reminded of the simple truths of God’s love, and simple passages from the Word of God.”
St. Paul’s Lutheran Church and school is located at 301 S. High St. in Fort Atkinson. Pastors Matthew Vik and David Ernest can be reached through the church office at (920) 563-2263. The church website can be found at stpaulsfort.org.
St. Paul’s has a large sanctuary and currently provides four services a week to allow members to meet while complying with social distancing and mask-wearing measures intended to minimize the spread of COVID-19. The church also has an active video ministry.