'Bells of Peace' carillon moved to troubled Kansas City neighborhood

Monday, April 9, 2012 | 11:24 a.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY — A vintage electronic carillon known as the Bells of Peace could soon be ringing in one of Kansas City's most troubled areas.

The collection of 405 brass rods played from a keyboard was a gift from Joyce C. Hall, the founder of Hallmark, and it first rang when the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City was rededicated in 1961.

Now, volunteers are installing the carillon at St. Therese Little Flower Parish church in the 64130 ZIP code, which The Kansas City Star reported last year had more convicted murderers than any other ZIP code in the state.

St. Therese Little Flower has not had a bell since it was built in 1948. The church's pastor, the Rev. Ernie Davis, said he hopes the carillon will bring hope to the area and lure visitors across Troost Avenue, long the dividing line between white and black neighborhoods in the city.

"I don't know if you could do a scientific experiment to prove something like the bells could have an impact," Davis said. "But I can imagine that for someone losing hope or for someone with a gun in his pocket, this might save a life."

This electronic carillon includes long brass rods in metal cabinets: four tall ones on the floor and five smaller cases hanging on the wall in the church basement. The rods are struck and amplified with the help of vacuum tube technology, low-voltage currents and wiring.

"The idea is to play the minor bells against the huskier bells, the big stuff," said Bruce Prince-Joseph, St. Therese's organist and artist-in-residence.

Prince-Joseph was the keyboardist for the New York Philharmonic for more than two decades. He and the Rev. Jeff Hon, pastor of New Song Church in north Kansas City, have helped save the carillon twice.

The carillon rang from the Liberty Memorial for about 15 years before it fell into disrepair. Prince-Joseph became aware of the carillon in the early 1990s, when memorial officials were ready to discard most of it.

For two years, Prince-Joseph and others worked to install the carillon at St. Mary's Episcopal Church in downtown Kansas City, where he was music director.

Many replacement parts were hard to find and most of the wiring plans had been lost. A St. Mary's member, Richard McDonald, was experienced in tube electronics and got the carillon ringing again in 1994, and for the next 15 years, across downtown.

About two years ago, St. Mary's underwent renovations and the carillon was taken out of service. Prince-Joseph, Hon and others decided to move the carillon to St. Therese.

A few months into the installation at St. Therese, McDonald died. Hon is trying to complete the work, with the help of electrical engineer Brian Haupt.

Several of the bells refuse to ring, and it's unclear why. Hon is looking for advice from anyone with experience in vacuum tube and amplification technology from the 1950s and '60s. The pastor is confident that the problems will be resolved.

"I think that St. Therese — not the church, but the saint — is interested," Davis said. "I think she's pulling strings."

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