Lincoln Church's Historic Bells Silenced For Maintenance

June 16, 2021, 7:39 p.m. ·

Kathie Johnson and the out-of-comission carillon at the top of "The Singing Tower"
Kathie Johnson and the out-of-comission carillon atop "The Singing Tower"

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Under normal circumstances, the massive and historic carillon bells of First Plymouth Church can be heard resonating throughout the south Lincoln neighborhood they call home. Today, however, the bells are silent while workers refurbish them for the first time since 1990.

Kathie Johnson is the church’s volunteer carillon player and said she learned to play from her husband Ray Johnson, the church’s former carillon player.

“I met my husband in 68’, '' Johnson said. “He was playing a carillon concert and I came. I was new to town, I wanted to see it. So, I kind of started in '68 and he had a little guild, people that wanted to learn to play and so I did that.”

After Mr. Johnson passed away, Kathie took up the mantle.

“I just didn’t find anybody who wanted to stay with this, '' said Johnson. “You have to have a love and a passion to do this, to go up all the steps,” she chuckled.

She isn’t kidding.

The ladder
A small ladder fixed to a wooden platform leading the carillon room. Photo by William Padmore

When the bells are operational, Johnson, 74, walks the 100 steps of the bell tower’s narrow, 91-year-old staircase; onto an old wooden platform and up a small ladder to reach the piano-like instrument at the top of the tower. There, through the carillon’s system of wires, levers, and clappers, she's played the appropriate tunes for weddings, funerals, regular service, and anything in between.

A responsibility she enjoyed.

”I’ve got a knee replacement, but I still climb the steps,” said Johnson.

There are currently 57 bells suspended in the 171 feet tall “Singing Tower”, with the largest weighing close to 4600 lbs. Johnson says the oldest of the bells were ordered from England and have been in the tower since the church’s completion in 1931.

“And remember, this was done during the (Great) Depression,” says Johnson. “They were able to put enough money together to do this carillon a dollar at a time.”

While the bells are being worked on, Johnson must practice on a smaller set. Maintenance on the bells is expected to be complete in September.