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Revelations: Church used to require effort

By Jennifer Lee Preyss
Nov. 8, 2013 at 5:08 a.m.

Jennifer Preyss

When I arranged to meet with Trinity Lutheran's the Rev. Barney Matocha about Victoria's downtown church bells, the last thing I expected was to get a glimpse into a centuries-old practice of church bell ringing.

I thought I would learn about the hymns that were played and how long they ring.

But I never considered how physically tiring attending church used to be, especially before modern-day technology.

I spent almost two hours learning about the bell ringing, sweating my booty off and testing the boundaries of my workman's compensation insurance policy.

While interviewing Matocha about the brass church bells, he suggested I get a closer look inside the sanctuary's bell tower where thousand-pound bells have been ringing since they were dedicated in 1908.

We climbed one staircase and entered the room in which the ropes hang down from the bells.

They were heavy and thick and required much effort to get them swinging into a melodious synergy. But then the pastor suggested we climb the metal ladder into the bell tower so we could stand right up close to the bells.

My clothes were filthy with dust and dirt by the time I entered the bell tower.

But it was amazing to stand next to magnanimous instruments and know someone has been ringing them by hand for more than 100 years.

To say it was hot in the tower was an understatement. Sweat beads were forming all over my face and the dirt was sticking to the moisture on my body.

We stood up in the tower and discussed the bell ringing for a while, which included a history on the church's German roots and language preference when it first assembled in the late 1800s.

Perhaps I should have gone back to work after that adventure, but instead, I was intrigued by Barney's next question: "Do you want to see the old bell tower?"

He explained that if I truly wanted to see it, which was on the opposite end of the church near the chapel, it would require an adventurous spirit.

I didn't understand what that meant until we reached the old bell tower's stairs - a thin, spiral staircase that led upward into a black abyss of nothingness.

After the stairs, we climbed another ladder, and I wiggled my way into the second story of the tower.

With every step inside the thin, square room, the flooring creaked below my feet.

Dust was thick on every board, and I was convinced that with one misstep I would crash through the flooring.

The old church louvers were boarded up. The room didn't breathe well, and I wasn't breathing that well either.

It was hot, and I continued to sweat.

At this point, sweat was dripping from my head and neck, and mascara was leaking into my eyeballs.

Barney then asked if I wanted to go higher, pointing at a rickety wooden ladder leading to the rooftop above us.

I watched him climb the ladder, bouncing on the boards with every rickety step.

I slowly followed him, praying the ladder wasn't also donated to the church in 1908.

When I squeezed through the opening, I climbed onto the roof of the church and breathed the fresh air.

I could see all of Victoria through the treetops, including the other downtown church steeples and Incarnate Word convent on Water Street.

It was breathtaking to stand on that roof, one of the highest points in the city, and try to visualize what Victoria must have looked like a century ago when it was still a little German town, up-and-coming city.

But what stayed with me that morning was the realization that church (back in the day) required effort.

If you wanted to heat the building, someone had to bring the coals from their home and start a fire.

If you wanted to attend church services multiple times a week, you had to walk several miles or hitch up the horses to get there.

And if you wanted to ring the bells to summon fellow believers to service, you had to climb three flights of ladders and ring the heavy bells yourself.

I wonder how many people would attend church today if real, physical exertion was a requirement of worship?

Perhaps we've made church too easy these days.

Jennifer Preyss is a reporter for the Victoria Advocate. You can reach her at 361-580-6535 or jlpreyss@vicad.com or @jenniferpreyss on Twitter.

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