After years of silence, Greenville will hear the bells on Christmas Day

After years of silence, Greenville will hear the bells on Christmas Day

Greenville residents will soon hear the bells of St. Thomas ring again. In the midst of renovation, the church has acquired an electronic carillon to replace the mechanical one, which hasn't rung for several years. Above, workers make repairs to the bell tower. (Breeze photos by Gerry Goldstein)
Tolling last Sunday at St. Thomas brought smiling parishioners to worship

SMITHFIELD - Once, citizens of Greenville could set their watches by the twice-a-day tolling of the carillon at St. Thomas Episcopal Church. In recent years, though, all they heard was the sound of silence.

Now, with Christmas approaching, joyous peals are again imminent from the rugged bell tower atop the fieldstone church, a Putnam Pike landmark since before the Civil War.

In the midst of renovation, the church has acquired an electronic carillon to replace the mechanical one, which played bell sounds and hymns using rolls similar to those on a player piano.

The old carillon was a gift in 1961 from building contractor and parishioner John H. Equi, who asked in return that at least once every month it should fill village streets with the notes of "God Bless America."

Lost in the mists of time are Equi's reasons for the display of patriotism, and collective memory has dimmed on when the tradition stopped. But it has been a good 15 years, at least, since the song was played, according to long-time parishioner Maurice Boulais, 88, an unofficial church historian.

For the past several years there has been no tolling at all, because moisture seeping into the bell tower shorted out the old carillon and the church shut it down. Now, a replacement has been acquired from Trinity Episcopal Church in Scituate, which has access to another.

With installation near, Boulais and others, including senior warden Henry Dziadosz, say it might be fitting to revive "God Bless America," the 1918 Irving Berlin number that turned iconic after singer Kate Smith re-introduced it on her Armistice Day radio show in 1938.

But that's just a sidelight to the larger issue - the reappearance of a carillon now that the church has snugged up the bell tower with a grant of nearly $20,000 from the Champlin Foundations.

According to Dziadosz, there literally were bats in the belfry, where the carillon's speakers are located along with four bells that themselves hadn't sounded in years and whose mountings were being strengthened.

As a result, the congregation was treated this past Sunday to an unexpected pre-Christmas gift: During a visit from Episcopal Bishop the Right Rev. W. Nicholas Knisely, the topmost bell in the 80-foot tower suddenly began to toll at 7:50 a.m., calling worshippers to the 8 a.m. service.

"It was wonderful - the smiles were just incredible," said Rector Susan M. Carpenter. "People were saying, 'My goodness, it's the bells.'''

The congregation, organized in 1851, built its church in 1859 for $4,200, using stones quarried in Smithfield. In 1891 the church replaced a high stone facade holding its original three bells with the tower that exists today.

The building's designer, Thomas A. Tefft, is remembered as the architect of a structure more widely familiar in Rhode Island, the original Union Station in Providence.

The Smithfield congregation that hired Tefft was missionary-oriented before the church was built. Its first clergyman, the Rev. J. H. Eames, is said during his seven-year tenure to have traveled 40,000 miles on foot and horseback, bringing the Good Word to rural populations in Northern Rhode Island.

Today's congregation totals nearly 180 families, according to Rector Carpenter. She said the church, in the midst of renovations to keep it maintained, is also honoring its long history with repairs to stained glass windows and a landscaping plan that will include some of the shrub varieties that grew on its grounds - at the corner of Smith Avenue - in the 19th Century.

Long-time village residents say they sorely miss the carillon, even though a bell rings before services at the nearby Greenville Baptist Church. And last year a donor gave a carillon to St. Philip Church, further west on Putnam Pike, that can play hymns and has on occasion rendered "America the Beautiful."

State Rep. Thomas Winfield, who has lived next door to St. Thomas all of his 50 years, says the carillon "was part of the village fabric," recalling that in his childhood, the late afternoon bell "meant we'd better get our fannies home because we were having dinner."

"People still talk about missing it," said Martha Brown, who for years changed the music rolls depending on which hymns were to be sounded.

She said she was unaware of the request that donor Equi made when he provided the original carillon more than half a century ago.

Historian Boulais, a member of St. Thomas for some 60 years, knows a thing or two about patriotism, having served as an aviation mechanic in World War II.

Years ago, he recalls, he heard the old carillon ring out "God Bless America" many times. And while the tradition may have been forgotten, he says, it would please him to see it revived because "We are patriotic people."

The first bell-ringing in many years took place at St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Sunday. During a visit from Episcopal Bishop the Right Rev. W. Nicholas Knisely, left, the topmost bell in the 80-foot tower was rung by Senior Warden Henry Dziadosz at 7:50 a.m., calling worshippers to the 8 a.m. service. (Submitted photo by Cheryl Thompson)
Above, is an interior shot of one of the church's stained glass windows.
This is a view of the sanctuary from the altar at St. Thomas Episcopal Church.
Greenville residents will soon hear the bells of St. Thomas ring again. In the midst of renovation, the church has acquired an electronic carillon to replace the mechanical one, which hasn't rung for several years. Above, is the facade tower that was replaced with the current tower in 1891.