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Sounds of the Holy City: A history of Charleston's oldest church bells

Church bell (WCIV).JPG

They’re the sound of the Holy City that calls out to the community every hour, every special occasion, every day of mourning.

They are some of Charleston’s most prized and historic possessions.

Wood Struthers is the bell captain at the Cathedral of St. Luke and St. Paul, a gig he inherited after he retired.

“We have eight bells up in the tower,” he said. Six are from England, and they ring in octave.

It’s no small feat to get them going, as Struthers demonstrated.

The smallest bell weighs a little more than 400 pounds. The biggest bell in the bunch weighs in at more than 1,200 pounds.

“Each person pulls a hand stroke and a backstroke,” he explained. “The position of that bell, even though you're not moving, you'll change positions with another bell.”

No more than eight but no less than three bell ringers are in the room at once ringing on method, not melody.

It seems like a complex process to the lay person, but it’s a methodical process that Struthers and the other bell ringers have memorized.

A process that never repeats, because if it does, it’s a ruined method and ruined music to the ears on the street.

The bells at the Cathedral of St. Luke and St. Paul are not the most historic in Charleston, though.

Those reside high above Broad Street and the Tiffany stained glass windows of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church.

Their storied history dates backed to 1764 when they were first installed.

Since then, they have been back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean seven time to be either recast or remolded. Once after they were sent to Columbia for safekeeping during the Civil War but were ultimately destroyed by William Sherman. The latest restoration of the bells was in 1993 after Hurricane Hugo.

They are the second oldest church bells in North America and were produced by the oldest running company in England.

St. Michael’s is also home to the oldest clock of its kind in North America.

Just up Broad Street from St. Michael’s is St. Phillip’s on Church Street.

It went more than 100 years without any bells after it donated them to the Confederacy to be melted for iron.

Cathedral of St. Luke and St. Paul, St. Michael’s, Grace Church Cathedral on Wentworth, and a Sullivan’s Island church are all changing bell towers, meaning the bells are rung by hand.

That is more than any city in North America, according to local bell captains.

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