Every Sunday at 10:15 a.m., on the corner of King and Church, a live musical performance takes place by a group of artists you’ll never actually see. Tucked away high above the streets of Toronto in the tower of St. James Cathedral, volunteer bell-ringers gather for 45 minutes to sound the call to worship.
When we hear these chimes, many of us picture a church bell that hangs downwards, swinging freely from side to side as someone tugs on a rope to create the clanging sound. St. James Cathedral, however, boasts the only set of 12 “change ringing” bells in Canada, and one of two sets in North America. “Picture a tea cup, mouth upwards, waiting to receive the tea,” says Madeleine Cheesman, St. James’ deputy tower captain. In this style of ringing, each person pulls slowly on a rope that turns a large vertical wheel located next to their bell, rotating it a full 360 degrees. This causes the clapper to fall to one side of the bell, initiating the first ring. The rope is then pulled again to rotate the wheel another 360 degrees, causing the second ring. The 12 inverted bells are arranged in a rectangular formation, and each one varies in size and tone.
Describing change ringing as her “absolute favourite pastime,” Cheesman warns that it can be “addictive.” The other 25 members of the St. James Cathedral Guild of Change Ringers would agree. Ranging in age from 18 to 75, some have been ringing for more than 40 years. The guild doesn’t actively recruit members; instead, Cheesman says, “they seem to find us. If someone expresses an interest in becoming a bell-ringer, they’re invited to a couple of practices to see how they like it.” The appeal seems near-universal: Where else would an architect, a student, a nurse, a police officer, a construction millwright, and a handful of retirees gather together every Sunday to jam?
Learning the art of change ringing happens in phases, and understanding the complexities of the music can easily span a lifetime. On most Wednesday evenings, the veteran ringers at St. James pass on their expertise to newer guild members. Cheesman’s husband, Nick, is the go-to instructor for beginners, spending at least eight weeks showing them proper bell-handling techniques. After that, the focus is on the music, which in ringing consists of “changes” (or scales) and “methods” (sequences of changes). It’s Cheesman herself who typically teaches methods; she has a considerable range of them, and has rung in more than 90 towers worldwide. But she’s also had plenty of time to hone her skills. “I married into ringing 35 years ago,” she says. “My husband comes from a long line of change ringers in southern England. So if you’re a Cheesman, you ring!”
ST. JAMES STATS
The bell tower and spire of St. James Cathedral rises 305 feet, making it the third highest cathedral in North America and the sixth highest in the world.
Unlike its taller rivals, St. James is the only cathedral with inverted change ringing bells.
631 pounds: Weight of St. James’ smallest (or treble) bell.
2,481 pounds: Weight of the largest (or tenor) bell, roughly the size of a subcompact Mazda.
70 feet: Length of rope each ringer uses to clang the bell.
4: Minimum number of people needed for basic ringing. At least six people—and six bells—work best.