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St Nicholas community completely
thrilled with new blagovestnik—

“One stroke and I was a believer”


SAN ANSELMO, CALIFORNIA, 11/9/03— Could we really do it? Could we really get a bell that big for our small (80-person) parish? Granted, we did have a generous bequest to start with. But some objected that we should be spending our money on charity instead. Others pointed out that we do actually try to be generous to any number of charitable projects, and that this was not to be an annual expense but a one-time permanent beautification. Moreover, funds would come not out of collections, but by special subscription, and we'd already received a generous bequest for just such a special project. We just needed to come up with the (substantial) difference. So— ok: we all agreed to do it if the other objections were met. One objection down, two to go.

We also had concerns about whether we’d really like the bell once we spent all that money. Certainly, Fr Stephan had done extensive research to determine the one bell of the hundred or so listed in our catalogue that would work best with our other nine, long before he even proposed getting it. But the one he chose was to be cast by Vera, a foundry other than Pyatkov, which had produced our others, so even he was still a little nervous about whether it would really fit, despite his extensive, but necessarily long-distance comparisons.

We resolved this by drawing up a contract with the foundry that specified that the bell would be photographed and recorded, and the pictures and sounds sent to us before shipping. The bell would ship only if we liked what we saw and heard. If for any reason St Nicholas was not happy with what the photos and recording showed us, the bell had to be recast to our specifications, without question, or the money refunded.

Completely confident in their work, the foundry cheerfully complied. Actually, they were wise to do so; their pictures and recordings only whetted our expectations all the more.

So the bell was cast in early September, and was ready for shipping in October, some five months after we'd placed the order.

When it was weighed for shipping, it turned out to be 56 kg (123 lbs) more than the contract showed because of a minor adjustment in its profile and its heavy ornamentation. The foundry did not charge us for this overage, but that’s enough difference to make an import company (like us) reach for the asprin!

Also, in consulting with US Customs about import requirements, we learned that the pallet had to have hole in its center to allow inspection of the interior space of the bell. Otherwise a crane would be needed at Customs to lift the bell for interior inspection, etc. So the foundry built a pallet with a manhole. We found it a bit amusing, but Customs reported that it had found no bombs or other contraband inside and, as always, released the bell without problem. The pallet with its trapdoor may become the floor of a great treehouse and pirate's lair for the kids.

But then— whoa!— have you ever tried to back a 40-foot truck carrying a ton and a half of metal through a narrow gate in a residential neighborhood? St Nicholas church is located in just such a neighborhood and has just such a gate. It took some wiggling, but the truck managed to get through and to back up all the way to the far side of the church, where the zvonnitsa was ready. But a scary time was had by all!

Once the truck was as far back as it was going to go, the drivers moved the bell from the center of the trailer with a simple pallet-jack and proceeded to unload it on the truck’s lift-gate.  Not everyone was confident that the drivers knew what they were doing. Of course they did, but when the lift-gate sloped and the bell shifted a bit, Mark Galperin, Blagovest’s general manager, says he felt a definite shortness of breath.

Raising the bell to the zvonnitsa beam was not particularly challenging. The worst part was rolling the pallet on some metal pipes over the gravel landscaping to the zvonnitsa; after that, a few car jacks were all we needed to lift the bell to the proper height. As you can see in the pictures, it is tied to the beam by thick nylon ropes which have a cumulative ability to support many tons. The whole project, from delivery to attaching the rope to the tongue, took all of a couple hours.

But now we faced all-important Objection No. 3, for which there could be no answer until this very moment: What was going to happen when we rang it? Fully one third of the parish was very afraid of the impact of the bell on the neighbors. And when the bell arrived, even we had to admit, it did look huge! Surely it would blast our neighbors right out of house and home— and into the law courts! After all, ours is a crowded neighborhood, and the nearest of them sleep only 30 and 50 feet away. People had every reason to worry!

Well, of course Fr Stephan had explained to us that a bell, by itself, is actually silent unless you tap it. And you can tap it with a little pebble to make a tiny “ding!”, or you can swing the clapper so hard you make a BIG noise and break the bell. And lightly tapping a big bell actually produces much less sound than tapping a small one with the same force, because the greater mass of the larger bell simply absorbs most of the energy. So, played moderately, a big bell is not actually much louder than a little one. Yes, it’s very energetic, and its sound penetrates your body so you can really feel it. Its hum lasts a lot longer, and its wave is more powerful and travels farther— but it’s not necessarily louder.

But this all seems counter-intuitive somehow, even now that we can verify it first-hand. So, as it says in the gospels, “Some doubted.” And they had remained skeptical, if not downright opposed, right up until the very end. In fact, Fr Stephan’s wife and daughter were among the most outspoken throughout the whole project. “You've gone too far this time,” they insisted.

All it took, though, was to hear the tongue set all that bronze ringing for the very first time.

“One stroke and I was a believer,” said Matushka Elaine. “It sounds sooo perfect! How did we ever live without it?”

How indeed? We'd been very happy with our other nine bells, but Fr Stephan was absolutely right. The new one has a smoothing, soothing, balancing effect on the whole zvonnitsa. Its low tones surround and “float” the high-pitched, more piercing and plangent notes of our zazvonny (soprano) and podzvonny (alto) bells on an ocean of mellow vibrations. You could even say, the new bell is velvet. As Mark Galperin says, “It pets your ears, rather than damaging them.” And if anything, our whole set actually sounds a little quieter now, when you're close-up, even if you can hear it a little farther away than before. The Korean families next door, by the way, love it.

On the day we blessed the new bell, Joe Hok, our retired starosta, was in tears. He said, “I remember how Eugene Orloff and I signed a personal loan guarantee for this building 30 years ago. And now we’re ringing this bell for him while we sing Memory Eternal!  What a triumph for the founder of this church.” Many, many thanks to Mr. Orloff’s widow and family, who provided the very generous donation that enabled us to complete our bell tower.

In all, December 10, 2003 was a day to remember. And here’s an interesting sidelight: We actually had two new “blagovestniks”, that day. At the cathedral the previous morning, Bishop Tikhon had just ordained our new deacon, Fr. George Golitzin, and he served as deacon in our own church for the very first time that morning. Now, “blagovestnik” literally means “announcer” or, better yet, “evangelist”, and is an ancient term for a deacon. So we had our Fr. George, and our new bell: both of our new blagovestniki are very nice basses, by the way!

We might add a word about the accomplishments of Sergei Moroz and his construction team.  By doing the labor themselves, they kept our zvonnitsa costs down to about $2,000. Well, there was that first attempt which they decided we didn’t like, and we did overbuild the second one a bit. But with George Baranov’s engineering, Sergei’s carpentry and execution skills, and Bob French’s know-how-can-do, we now have a sturdy steel-and-wood sandwich capable of withstanding an earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale. (We do have earthquakes in the San Francisco area.)

Many thanks also to Father Stephan for his vision, and for pushing and pulling so relentlessly for the past four years. In the beginning, we actually thought our one little bell was fine. But what did we know? If he hadn't understood what bells mean in the Orthodox tradition, and what a good set with one big bell would do for our church and for our liturgy, we’d never have thought about getting eight more— let alone a blagovestnik— in a million years. Words do not convey... I guess that's why there are bells in the first place: to convey what words do not.

Next project: a new kitchen.

Now that’s going to be a challenge!


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