Volume 19 Issue 34 | January 5 - 11, 2007

Downtown Express photos by Jefferson Siegel

Zoe Gao fled her home near Times Square for a quieter New Year ‘s Eve at Trinity Church.

A literal ring to the New Year

By Jefferson Siegel

Over 100 years ago, before the lights of Times Sq. drew crowds to celebrate the New Year, people flocked Downtown for their year-end revelry. Last Friday night, Trinity Church on lower Broadway reinstated a long-forgotten New Year’s Eve tradition with a midnight ringing of its newly installed change-ringing bells.

About 100 people looking for an alternative to Uptown’s raucous mobs filed into the church’s pews and sat in dozens of chairs set up on the front stage for an 11:30 p.m. prayer service.

Since the bells reside in a lofty steeple, their sound travels outward, rather than down into the sanctuary. That’s why, before services commenced, guests were invited outside the 160-year-old Church’s front entrance to better hear the new bells. Installed last fall, each of the dozen bells has a sock on its clapper, producing a soft sound when swung in one direction and a loud sound when swung the other way.

In preparing for the installation of the new bells, the steeple was reinforced with a new interior and a room below for the change bell ringers. The new bells range in weight from a few hundred pounds to several tons.

“Once upon a time New Year’s Eve in Manhattan was celebrated right outside our doors,” Vicar Anne Mallonee said as several dozen people stood on Broadway, looking up at the steeple as the sound of the pealing carillon filled the deserted streets. Change bells are mounted on wheels and rotate 360 degrees. The 12 bells can produce hundreds of millions of sound combinations.

“Since I’m of the age that I don’t think I should go to Times Sq., I thought this was a better alternative,” said Cynthia Moten, a resident of Battery Park City for 15 years. “I think it’s a wonderful thing to give people in the neighborhood an opportunity to come to a place and celebrate with other people.”

Pam Langford, who lives on Liberty St., was walking her dog on Oct. 29 when she first heard the new bells ringing. “I was fascinated by it.,” she said. “We’re having a New Year’s party at my house tonight and I had guests who were interested in hearing the bells, so here we are.”

After several minutes on the street, people began filing back inside for a reading of Ecclesiastes. Zoe Gao came from Hell’s Kitchen, a block away from Times Sq. “I needed a peaceful and quiet place for my New Year’s wish,” she said, standing in the aisle while holding a candle.

Church officials, realizing New Year’s Eve was a secular holiday, threw in what they considered a timely prayer for the neighborhood and a nod to modernity.

“I invite you to take out your BlackBerrys, hold up your watches,” Vicar Mallonee asked of the crowd. Cell phones, pagers and Palm Pilots were thrust aloft as Mallonee read a blessing from “Prayers for the Domestic Church” by Father Ed Hayes, a Roman Catholic priest. “We thought it would be a perfect addition; whimsical but important, too,” she explained. “Sometime it seems like these things, these BlackBerrys and calendars, they drive us, rather than we use them.”

Silence then pervaded the sanctuary for several minutes until Mallonee turned to a clock and began a countdown with 25 seconds remaining in the old year. Slowly the crowd chimed in, until everyone was practically yelling, “...five, four, three, two...” At the stroke of midnight, cheers filled the sanctuary, mingling with the sounds of noisemakers and horns the church had provided. The racket persisted for several minutes as people hugged and spontaneously broke into singing “Auld Lang Syne.”

“We are resurrecting an old tradition,” said David Jette, head verger of the church. “Around the turn of the 20th century, our rector decided it had just become too unruly,” he said in explaining why the bell-ringing was stopped in 1894. Despite protests at the time to keep the tradition alive, the yearly Downtown celebration ultimately faded when The New York Times and other newspapers moved to 42nd St.

“Lower Manhattan became much more obscure as a place to come and celebrate New Year’s Eve,” Jette added. Though the Times moved from the narrow Times Tower years later, the world-famous ball still drops from its roof every December 31, signaling the start of a new year.

As the neighborhood grows and more people move Downtown, Jette said Trinity Church, whose parish was founded Downtown in 1697, hopes to bring locals in for a variety of occasions, not just religious holidays. “We will ring our bells tonight to celebrate the New Year. We thought that we would start low-key,” he said. “We’re training a group to learn how to do change-ringing.”

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