Visitors come to Riverside from across the country, even across the globe, to take in the pastoral nature of Frederick Law Olmsted’s landscape design and to see architectural landmarks by renowned architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and William LeBaron Jenney.

But there’s another tourist attraction you probably don’t know about and have never seen, though you may have heard it in passing on a summer Sunday, located right in the village’s downtown.

Last weekend, two separate groups of tourists from England made the pilgrimage to Riverside to experience that attraction — a set of eight bells ensconced in an enclosure that looks like a water tank atop a steel frame in a courtyard behind St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

“A lot of the Brits take their vacations this way,” said Allison Houha, a longtime parishioner at St. Paul’s and its present bell captain. If we averaged it out, we get a group once a year. … We definitely have people who call us up.”

On Sept. 28, a group of about 16 people, a good many from Yorkshire, drove into town to have a go at the bells of St. Paul’s. Earlier in the day, they’d rung at Mitchell Tower on the campus of the University of Chicago.

There are just about 50 such sets of bells in North America, according to St. Paul’s pastor, Father Luke Wetzel. When they stopped in Riverside, the group was in the midst of a 17-day, 25-bell-tower tour of the eastern U.S. and Canada.

“We’re all mad bell ringers,” said Ian Bennett, a South Yorkshireman who was traveling with his wife, Louise Bradbury-Bennett. 

Bells like the ones at St. Paul’s are much more common in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Bennett said he’d rung at about 1,600 locations there.

One of the attractions of the Riverside bells is their size. They are comparatively small, though the smallest bell weighs more than 100 pounds.

“They’re a lot lighter and easier to ring,” said Matthew Blurton, another tourist from Yorkshire who manned bell No. 5 during his turn at the rope last weekend.

To the untrained ear, the peals seem random, but the style — known as “change ringing” — which results in cascades of sound, follows strict patterns and changes need to be precise.

“You have to be able to control the bell and keep the pattern,” Blurton said.

The different patterns have inscrutable names like Grandshire Triples and Plain Bob Minor and have their own unique sonic characteristics.

“It’s all timing,” said Houha, who is just one of two bell-ringing regulars left at St. Paul’s.

Since the parish acquired the bells in 1991, the number of bell ringers has gradually dwindled. You really can’t perform change ringing without a group, so the bells at St. Paul’s don’t peal as frequently as they used to.

“Up until maybe five years ago, we would ring at Christmas, and if there’s a funeral for a parishioner, we offered to ring at that service as well, but lately it’s practice,” Houha said.

All of this bell ringing is pretty new to Father Wetzel, who took the reins as pastor a little more than a year ago for longtime pastor Father Thomas Fraser, who was the pastor responsible for acquiring the bells.

Wetzel said he hopes there might be a new burst of enthusiasm and that new bell ringers will join the small group — you don’t need to be a parishioner, he said.

“It’s unique and accessible in a lot of ways,” Wetzel said. “I’d like to see more people in the community doing it. It’d be great to ring on Memorial Day or Fourth of July or for Riverside’s [150th] anniversary.”

The story of how the bells ended up at St. Paul’s is intriguing. The parish at the time had a $20,000 bequest from a parishioner to put a single bell in the church’s small bell tower.

But the expense to simply prepare that tower for a bell was prohibitive, so they sat on the bequest, waiting for an opportunity. It came when a portable “expo” set of bells — a demonstration set — became available.

It so happened that the owner of the bells was willing to part with them for $20,000, and a friend of Father Fraser served as the parish’s purchasing agent. On Jan. 18 and 19, 1991, the bells and belfry parts were lowered by crane into the St. Paul’s courtyard.

Within a year the bells, forged at the Whitechapel Foundry in London — the same firm that forged the original Liberty Bell in Philadelphia — were covered with a roof to protect them from the elements. 

Tom Farthing, who fell in love with change ringing while a student at Kalamazoo College, came to Chicago in 1985 and began ringing at Mitchell Tower, where he’s now the person training other ringers and keeping the tradition alive.
When he learned St. Paul’s was getting a set of change-ringing bells in 1991, he immediately became part of the group and has remained ever since.

“I just really enjoy it and enjoy teaching new people about it,” said Farthing, who was outside St. Paul’s on Sept. 28 showing how the bells work using a small demonstration bell.

“It’s selfish as well — I can’t do it unless others do it with me. I’m smitten,” he said.

The only other parishioner who rings regularly is James Baum, who started ringing with other members of his family as a child. He’s now the band director and music teacher at Riverside-Brookfield High School.

“It’s sort of like riding a bike; it comes back to you,” Baum said of change ringing.

He was on hand to observe the parish’s visitors on Sept. 28, getting a good dose of all eight bells in action at the same time.

“It’s great because you get to ring with someone who is really accomplished,” Baum said.

He also likes meeting other ringers because they tend to be characters.

“There’s a way about them,” Baum said. “They’re super-smart because you have to have crazy mental capacity to do what they’re doing. I like the sound of the bells as well. It’s cool to be part of a team like that. The musicianship that goes into bell ringing is really unique and challenging.”

Anyone interested in becoming a bell ringer can email Father Wetzel at
parishoffice@stpaulsparish.org.