When the bell peals at Grace United Methodist Church, calling worshippers to the sanctuary, you can be sure that Dortha Strack is at work.
Strack has been ringing the bell at the church for nearly 20 years. Each Sunday morning she climbs the stairs to the third floor of the church to call the congregation and nearby community to worship.
Church bells, though fewer today than in decades past, ring the start of services at several churches: St. Mary's Cathedral, Trinity and Hanover Lutheran churches, St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church, Evangelical United Church of Christ and First Presbyterian Church.
Most of the bells are set on electronic timers. The only other bell to ring manually is at First Presbyterian and usually it falls to a choir member or Dr. Gary Miller to ring it just as the choir enters for the start of the service, said Alice Kabo, whose husband, Paul, is pastor at the church.
Ringing the bell fell to Strack after her middle son, Jay Mark, left for the armed forces. He'd volunteered to ring the bell on Sundays while in high school so that the janitor didn't have to come in on the weekends. When he left, Strack took over the job.
The bell has a special importance for Strack, whose family helped purchase it for the church tower. Her great-great-grandparents gave the German-made bell to the church in the late 19th century. When her great-grandparents both died on the same day, the bell rang at the start of their funeral, Strack said .
"As long as I can remember we've always rung the bell for church," Strack said. Living on the family farm, she frequently heard the bells at Hanover Lutheran Church. "They'd always ring when the had a funeral -- once for as many years as they'd lived."
Will keep on going
Strack hasn't missed a Sunday in 10 years. On the rare occasion when she's out of town or too ill to attend, Duane Kinsey rings in her place.
"It's something that I do and I want to continue as long as I can still do it," said Strack, 70.
She has plenty of help counting the rings. Many of the children in her 4- and 5-year-olds Sunday school class climb the stairs and help count the pulls on the rope.
"People always tell me that they can tell when I'm not ringing," she said.
It takes a special knack to ring the bell, said the Rev. Anselm Williams, pastor at the church.
Strack stands at the corner of the balcony level in the church sanctuary so that the organist can get her attention just before the worship service begins. With a nod of her head or a wave of the hand, Laura Bollinger alerts Strack to start her chore.
The bell rings 42 times for each of the 8 and 10:30 a.m. services, though Strack only has to pull the cord 21 times because the bell has a double ring.
All through Advent, Strack rings the bell 25 times to signal the Christ child's birth. She'll ring for the 6 p.m. Christmas Eve service Monday also.
The bell has come to be a part of the church for Strack. "I'd be really disappointed if we ever quit ringing it."
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