Keeping history alive and ringing
I’m in my Sunday best, walking through Russian Hill, when I see a building that looks like it came from a different world. It has bright blue domes, gold spires, and delicately arched windows. That’s where I meet this guy:
"My name is Emannuel Blagoe Manasievici, but you can call me Manny for short, because that’s a very long name. And I’m a bell ringer at Holy Trinity Cathedral."
I’m here to shadow Manny as he prepares to ring Holy Trinity’s seven bells. As soon as we open the wooden doors of the church, the sounds of the city fade away, and everything gets super quiet. The church is hushed, but alive with pre-service bustling and rustling. Manny lowers his voice to a whisper to ask for the keys to the bell tower.
Our next stop is a chest of drawers on the church’s second floor, where Manny takes out two pairs of huge orange and black headphones — the kind you would find at a construction site. Then, we continue our climb to the bell tower.
Manny starts by sounding the largest of the bells, which weighs almost three tons. When it rings, I can feel the vibrations in my bones.
That bell is almost two centuries old — but Holy Trinity itself is even older. The church was founded in 1857, making it one of the first Orthodox churches in the United States. So now, in 2023, Holy Trinity’s bell-ringers are literally recreating the sound of the past.
"Every liturgy will start with a specific bell ringing called the Blagovest," Manny tells me. "Which in old church Slavonic translates to something akin to good word or good news going out. So basically that’s just going to be a slow tolling of the large bell probably once a minute."
Holy Trinity may be old, but its bell ringers are no luddites. Manny says he usually finishes up the Blagovest at 9:30 — or, when he gets a text message from the priest that it’s time to start the festal peal. This ringing is lighter, more joyful — the smaller bells sound like falsettos and sopranos compared to the larger bell’s baritone.
I’ve never met a kid who wants to be a bell-ringer when they grow up. But for Manny, ringing these bells at this church almost feels preordained.
"My parents were immigrants from Romania who came over in the late seventies," Manny says. "And being of Romanian heritage, they were both born and raised Eastern Orthodox." Manny’s parents discovered Holy Trinity when they moved into the neighborhood. They got married at the church — and, a few years later, they decided to baptize Manny there.
"I was very much fascinated by bells and lights and whistles and everything as a kid," Manny explains. "And these church bells were extra special."
So special, in fact, that he couldn’t help but invent his own DIY version.
"I would take down all the pots and pans from the kitchen cabinets, lay them upside down on the kitchen table, grab some wooden spoons and then start banging on them emulating the sound of those church bells as I remembered them," he recounts.
Manny has long since graduated from pots and pans. Holy Trinity’s former choir director and bell ringer, was the first person to show him the ropes. For the past ten years, he’s been ringing the real thing.
The sound of the bells sticks out amid the car horns and shuffling feet — like a strange interlude in the song of San Francisco. "Many times I will observe from the bell tower, people stopping on the street to look up the bells," he says. "Sometimes I'm just doing the slow single bell toll leading up to the liturgy so people might stop and pause, they might take a picture."
Like these three men I meet on the sidewalk.
“Is it Serbian or Armenian?”
“It’s pure Russian?”
“Well Serbia’s not Russian.”
“I thought it was Serbian—”
“They hate the Russians.”
“—but I must be wrong.”
“It’s Russian yeah, look at the script, it’s Russian script.”
Finally, I have to interrupt. “Can I ask why you all are so curious about this church?”
“Why are you so curious about the church?” I ask again.
“It got burned one time.”
“Well we heard the chimes from the bell. And I said it seems a little out of tune.”
“The bell was good, I liked the sound of the bells. Did you?”
“No, I didn’t like it.”
“You did not like it, why not?”
“Because I’ve heard many better...this is not so musical, it was a little clangy sounding to me.”
If you also think the bells sound a bit inharmonious, Manny says that’s actually by design.
"In the Western tradition, bells are tuned to specific notes. So when you think of a European city with a church bell, the bells will play certain melodies at different times of days, and striking one bell will play certain notes," he explains. "So this bell is a C, that bell is a B, and so on and so forth."
But in the Russian tradition," he continues, "basically, once a bell is cast, that is the tone, the note it has for life. So instead of playing melodies, they're treated as a percussion instrument, in which the different bells have a series of overlaid rhythms and pattern plays, depending on of course, how many bells there are, and the skill of the bell ringer."
That was Constantin Stade ringing Holy Trinity’s bells. He’s kind of a big deal in the world of Orthodox bells — and he helped Holy Trinity change their bells to a more traditional setup in 2018.
In case you couldn’t already tell from Constantin’s ringing, bell ringing is a skill. You might be picturing somebody hitting a bell with a stick. But what Manny and other bell-ringers do looks more like an intricate dance.
"So the way the bells are configured is that the bells themselves are fixed, and it's only the clapper inside the bell that moves to strike," Manny says. "And those clappers are controlled by the cords of varying lengths, and tensions and sizes."
Like any dance, bell-ringing engages the whole body. Manny’s left hand holds three different cords. These cords are knotted together at the end, and they move the clappers of the three smallest bells. His right palm controls four cords, and at his feet are two pedals. They ring the largest and second largest bells.
"Basically, the bell in a way sort of becomes an extension of your limbs, because you are through your movement…that's what makes it sound. So it's all about the timing, and the coordination, and the strength, and how hard or softly you pull, or how hard or softly you push the pedal," Manny clarifies. "And to be honest, I'm still learning because it is very nuanced."
These bells are heavy. They’re sturdy, and tangible. But there’s something undeniably fragile in what Manny does. Hand-rung bells are rare these days. Other churches have turned to automation, or use pre-recorded bell sounds.
But Manny’s not worried. I don't think this tradition is going anywhere, because it's been a part of this parish, since it was in existence for the last 155 years," he says. In fact, five of its seven bells, including the biggest one, were a gift to the church by Tsar Alexander III, who donated the bells in 1888.
And the bells have seen more than just Russian history. They were removed from the church before the earthquake and fire that destroyed most of San Francisco in 1906. When the original church building burned, the bells survived. "So..." Manny pauses. "The bells will continue ringing.
And to make sure that they keep ringing, Manny is teaching others — like Bonnie Cherry.
"Technically learning the bells has been really, really difficult because it's not like an acoustic guitar where you can just take it into your bedroom and play and not bother anybody," Bonnie tells me. "If you practice the bells too much, you get like the cops showing up, you know, with complaints."
But even though bell-ringing comes with inconveniences, it might be the perfect type of music for Bonnie to learn. "I had a tumor near my brainstem and it paralyzed my vocal cords and it caused me to lose most of my hearing," she says.
But Bonnie still experiences sound.
"Sound is a thing, and everybody receives it, even if it receives it in a different way. You can’t close your eyes to sound." She feels it in her body, as waves and vibrations. She says that even if she loses her hearing and her voice completely…."I feel like I will still be able to, like, go up that bell tower, you know... It feels like… ringing the bells feels when I do it…it feels like my soul is singing."
That’s why it’s so important to her that Holy Trinity’s bells keep ringing. "I think that anybody who learns a liturgical art becomes responsible for protecting that art, and for teaching another person," Bonnie says. "Like it's my role to learn it well and protect it and keep it…as a thing that not a lot of people do."
When I asked Bonnie if she had anyone in mind to teach bell ringing to, she replied immediately: her daughter. "She'll be so much better than me at it. So after I get good at it and after she's old enough that I can, like, trust her to protect her ears, she's going to learn too."
But bell ringing is also more than a tradition to be passed on, or a unique sound. Like all music, it’s about giving the world a piece of yourself. To hear Bonnie ring the bells is to hear her heart. "Like I said I'm ringing after the service is over usually. And that's when fewer people in our parish are actually listening. They're going downstairs for coffee and they're shaking hands and stuff like that."
"And so after the service, you know, praying is done. We're all in communion. We've lifted up our hearts. And I'm so, like, satisfied," Bonnie continues. "And I feel like my heart is just bursting with gratitude and love and going up to the bell tower , it's like I get to send my full bursting heart out into a thousand directions."
If you happen to be on the sidewalk in Russian Hill on a Sunday, and can hear Holy Trinity’s bells in-person, you’ll notice that the actual peals only last for a couple of minutes, unless it's a major holiday. But long after the last bell had sounded, I could feel a deep vibration. The noise of the city seeps back in — the cars, the joggers, the occasional barking dog. But if you listen closely, there’s still a gentle hum. It’s a hum that will last for a while.