Waverly landmark in noise squabble A CLAMOR OVER CHURCH BELLS

October 12, 1994|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Sun Staff Writer

Gail Kreusinger has lived for 48 years on Montpelier Street -- close to picture-book St. John's-Huntingdon Episcopal Church, a Gothic Revival landmark rising from a secluded oasis of brick walks, flowers and tree-shaded boxwood along crime-battered Greenmount Avenue in Waverly.

Ms. Kreusinger loves the bells of St. John's.

"They're beautiful, and they keep us on schedule." And she has the names of 50 others who agree with her.

But for a small, determined group led by Dolores Moran, the mounting tensions around St. John's are worthy of Agatha Christie. The title might be "The Affair of the Annoying Bells." As Florence Harbold, a near neighbor on East 31st Street, puts it, "They clang and bang, and I cannot escape them."

Drawn into the neighborhood squabble since February are the Maryland Department of the Environment, Baltimore's Commissioner of Health, the city Bureau of Community and Industrial Hygiene, City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, the three City Council members from the 3rd District, a Police Department community relations officer, a bell foundry in Charleston, S.C., noise-control consultants in York, Pa., an Episcopal bishop and at least one physician specializing in audiology.

Ms. Moran, founder of Humans United for Safer Hearing (HUSH) and leader of the opposition to the expensively restored church bells, says their frequency and decibel levels adversely affect her hearing as well as her peace of mind.

She has complained to the Right Rev. Charles L. Longest, bishop-in-charge of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, that the bells "awaken sleeping babies, disrupt the recuperative sleep of the sick, intrude on one's thoughts and activities continuously, awaken one early on a holiday, then make naps impossible, interfere with the proper rest of the shift-worker -- creating sleep deprivation and the consequences that follow -- and lower property values by creating a noise nuisance."

This last argument is especially wide of the mark, counters the Rev. Jesse L. A. Parker, rector of St. John's. The lovingly restored and maintained church buildings and grounds, including the 1844 bell tower and its 11 bells installed in 1910, are the chief reason people would want to live on adjacent streets, he believes.

The rectory that Father Parker occupies on the church property is much closer to the bells than the home of Ms. Moran at 622 E. 31st St. "They are not clangs and bongs," an exasperated Father Parker said last week, "they are music."

He feels certain that many more residents and workers in Waverly appreciate the 6 a.m.-to-6 p.m. schedule of chimes than oppose it.

On weekday mornings, the ringing begins with the 18 bell strikes the Angelus at 6. It is followed by the 15 bells of the Call to Worship at 7:45, the 32 bells of the St. Michael the Archangel Chime at 8:58 and, beginning at 9, the traditional marking of each quarter-hour. At the conclusion of the regular bell-ringing at 6 p.m., four minutes of an evening hymn are sometimes played.

The schedule varies on Saturdays and Sundays.

When, in the words of property-owner Levi Pearson, "a crescendoing of complaining around the one lovely sound on the street" began early this year, he wrote to his neighbors in Ms. Moran's block:

"As to the bells, I would like to ask people to try to relax a little. The bells are a joy and a glory. And they represent a stretch towards the heavens."

Father Parker acknowledges that not everyone enjoys church bells as much as he does, and in an effort to accommodate the complainers he arranged for a full day of testing and adjusting of decibel levels by Reynolds Audio in York.

Many hours also have been spent at St. John's by Baltimore Health Department officials, measuring the sound of the bells from various distances and at all times of the day. The city's noise-control ordinance says "that every person is entitled to ambient noise levels that are not detrimental to life, health and enjoyment of his property."

The upshot of these efforts is that no one is satisfied.

Father Parker said reducing the force of strikes against the bells significantly lowered decibel levels but distorted parts of the chime. As a result, the consultants must be brought back to increase the striking force on some of the bells, he said.

And even with the lowered decibel levels, Ms. Moran said, "the church is still in violation of the noise code." If the rector and vestry do not cut down on the frequency of the bell-ringing -- "the solution that we seek" -- legal action is a possibility, she said.

Father Parker's response was that curtailing "the spiritual comfort most people enjoy from the sound of church bells" is out of the question.

He noted that automation of the bells was made possible through a generous gift last year from Mrs. A. Carlisle Miles, a St. John's member. (Mrs. Miles has since died, leaving the church $1 million, the interest of which may be used for capital improvements authorized by the vestry.)

The rector said he will continue to try to appease the minority of Waverly residents unhappy with the bells. "In the spring," he said, "it is our intention to plant fast-growing Leyland cypresses to provide a natural, evergreen, tall sound-break along our 31st Street property."

But he remains unconvinced of claims of ear damage.

"As a musician, I am particularly sensitive to noise," Father Parker said. "Perhaps the most telling comments have been the grateful and positive ones from employees of Vinson's Animal Hospital, directly across the street from the bells, where even the dogs, whose hearing is many, many times more acute than that of humans, rest and heal undisturbed by the bells of St. John's."

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