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By Roy Hoffman
Religion News Service

MOBILE, Ala. — Solemn and intent, Irene Raymond stands in the vestibule of All Saints Episcopal Church and clutches the rope that leads through a hole in the ceiling to a 1,500-pound bell.
Slowly, methodically, she puts the whole weight of her body into the first pull — gong — then, as the bell swings the other way high above, she pulls down again, harder. Gong!
For more than 35 years, at ceremonies joyful or sad, it has been the task of Raymond, a Baptist, to send the clang of this giant bell through the sanctuary of this nearly century-old Episcopal church.
“It’s a great honor,” says Raymond, 68, the church sexton, “to ring the bell.”
On Sundays, an All Saints usher rings the bell. But for weddings and funerals, Raymond, a great-grandmother, repeats her decades-long ritual of tugging the rope until the 40-inch-diameter bell resounds through the neighborhood.
“You can ring it real light, or you can ring it real hard,” she explains.
“At a wedding, I’m clanging, and they’re coming out joyful. They’re waving at me, and the lady’s in her wedding gown. I pull it a little harder. People tell me, `Irene, ring it good!”‘
Raymond was taught to ring her bell, she says, by a master. In 1966, in her 20s, she found custodial work at All Saints, and was under the guidance of the sexton of that time, Carter Smith. “I’d see him ring the bell,” she says. “I’d see him put on his white jacket.”
Eventually Raymond would succeed Smith as sexton, a position that entails opening and closing the church, keeping it clean, readying it for events and helping organize receptions.
On one occasion while Smith was still sexton, a church member died when Smith was scheduled to go out of town. She asked who would ring the bell.
“You,” Smith told her.
“I was very nervous about it,” she says.
When she saw the casket appear on that first occasion, she felt deeply stirred at taking part in her small way in the ceremony. She still feels that way, she says, when a funeral procession begins.
“When they bring it in,” she says of the casket, “I ring it two or three times to let them know their loved one is coming up through the church.”
She rings slowly — clong-clong-clong — counting five beats between each ring to keep it reverent. At the end of the funeral, as the family walks behind the casket, and outside to the hearse, “I start ringing the bell again. It’s the last time they’ll be coming out of the church.”
She rings it at least once for every year of the departed’s life, but will keep ringing, she says, no matter how long the life span, until the mourners have driven away.
The Rev. Mary Robert, assistant rector at All Saints, says Raymond brings her own sense of spirituality to the ritual. “Irene’s got everything to do with making it solemn for funerals,” says Robert.
For funerals, Raymond pulls on one rope, for weddings, another. Both coil up through the ceiling to the tower, one rope moving the bell’s clapper, the other rocking the entire bell. Moving only the clapper allows for a somber, shadowed tone that sets the mood for funerals.
Moving the whole bell until it is swinging enables the clapper to bang against both sides, making for a brighter, faster peel that’s good for weddings.
For all the gravity of the funeral bell — “It’s a sad thing, a moaning sound,” Raymond says — the wedding bell, by contrast, is so joyous.
“I ring the bell when the bride is getting ready to come down the aisle. I ring clanga-clanga-clanga for the wedding.”
Raymond, who plays no other musical instrument, rings the bell from the heart. “I have rung for people’s weddings, and then their children’s weddings,” she said.
It will sound, she knows, for many more generations to come. “Somebody,” she says philosophically, “is going to ring it after me.”
Roy Hoffman writes for The Press-Register in Mobile, Ala.
Copyright 2007 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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