Today my job as Church Carpenter led me to investigate the erratic workings of St. Malachy’s bell. I have been up the inside of the steeple to replace a shear pin in the mechanism a number of times, usually when the pin has sheared and the bell won’t ring at all, but also on a couple of occasions before Easter or Christmas when I knew the shear pin was probably nearing the end of it’s life. Lately the bell has been ringing just fine tolling the hours and the Angelus, but has been balky when the control panel button is pushed to make it continuously toll, the button Fr. Smith likes to use to summon/welcome people to Mass. Oddly, when the control is in this mode, one can hear the mechanism working in the steeple, that is, right next to the bell, but there is no strike of the bell. There is only one striker, and it works in the other modes.
With this mystery in mind I began the usual journey toward the bell, which entails these steps:
1. Climb front steps of church and enter vestibule
2. Climb steps to choir loft level
3. Climb ladder to lower steeple hatch, remove hatch
4. Climb through lower hatch into 3’x3′ steeple flue
5. Turn on interior steeple lights (lower)
6. Climb vertical ladder to middle steeple platform
7. Turn on interior steeple lights (upper)
8. TURN OFF POWER TO BELL
9. Place planks across middle steeple platform and climb onto them
10. Remove upper steeple hatch (16″x20″) and stow hatch
11. Climb vertical ladder and thrust upper torso through hatch
12. Proceed with necessary repair
This is always a pretty strenuous endeavor, and certainly not for claustrophobes, as it is rather like being inside a chimney. I usually know what tools to carry with me, but decided to make the first trip up unencumbered. I was not particularly optimistic about my chances for success, as I was guessing that the problem was with a part of the mechanism I have never seen, probably inaccessible from inside the tower. This mechanism, last time it was serviced, required lift work from outside and the removal of one of the bell tower’s louvered vents.
Up I went until, upon completion of step 3, I found myself unusually showered with debris. Noticing that the greatest portion of the debris was leaves, and recalling the footprints I’d seen on the snowy roof a couple of weeks ago, I concluded that squirrels were now inhabiting the bell tower. I proceeded with steps 4 and 5, envisioning terrified squirrels exiting the upper portals as I climbed toward them turning on the lights. I tried to imagine what these creatures might have done to cause the symptoms our bell was presenting with.
Now confined in the small flue of the steeple I looked up to the middle platform and began the climb toward it. A couple of rungs up I was greeted by urgent and quite intimidating hissing noises, and pausing to listen, realized that the sounds were emanating from the platform now 3-4 feet over my head. Wishing in earnest that the squirrels might find me more terrifying than I found them, I waited. The hissing continued, and when I tested the rodents with one more tentative upward step, it intensified. Obviously I was going to need a weapon.
I retreated downward, and finding a 10′ long aluminum pole in the store room, headed to the front again, trying to envision a method of using my pole that minimized the possibility of direct physical contact with the squirrels. The thought that they might have a litter of young on the middle platform had just entered my mind, and I realized that prying the hissing squirrels from the nest and forcing them to fall on my head, in such close quarters, would be very upsetting for them. I called Fr. Smith and apprised him of the situation, and we agreed that it might be best to research, before proceeding further, the reproductive cycle of the Eastern Gray Squirrel. Sure enough…litters in February. I hope the bloody shear pin holds on for a little longer.