Last July, after I’d finished my work in Cordova, I took a weekend pit stop in Sitka, AK where I used to work, to visit my old park and some good friends still living there. It had been 2 years since I’d been back, and so I took the opportunity to play tourist and visit places I’d never been during my working days there.
One of those places was St. Michael’s Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox church built in the 1840s in the center of town, and still active today.
It was around 11:30am when I wandered in, killing some time before meeting my girlfriends for lunch. It was fairly crowded; a small cruise ship was in that day and many of its passengers were here gazing upon the brilliant historic icons that grace the elegant walls of the holy sanctuary.
Now, mind you, I had just spent the entire summer playing photographer, so on this day I had left my camera behind in the interest of enjoying time outside of the lens. In a matter of moments, though, I would be sorely wishing I had my camera with me.
I was making my way around the circular sanctuary, geeking out on all the historic artifacts, when a young man in black robes approached and introduced himself as Deacon Herman. We exchanged some friendly small talk, and then much to my astonishment, he told me he was about to go up into the bell tower to ring the noon bells, and would I like to join him? :-O Yes!
“Okay, I’ll come get you in 5 minutes,” he said.
When I met up with him a few minutes later, he had recruited another young visitor to join us, as well as Father Michael, the Priest. They seemed as excited to take us up into the tower as if it were their first time. The four of us slipped through an unassuming narrow door and into what felt like the underbelly of the cathedral. We made our way through a small, dark space and my nostrils filled with the musky smell of old wood. It was dimly lit with bare bulbs, lighting the steep, rickety staircase in a warm glow.
We climbed up and up and up and up, taking short breaks whenever the stairs changed directions. I wanted to take everything in — the dusty rafters, the ancient walls, the random churchy things stored in the crawlspaces we passed by — but Deacon Herman was leading the way, and Father Michael was following close behind, so I had to keep up. Just before the last set of stairs (which was really more of a ladder), Deacon Herman stopped and gave each of us noise canceling ear phones. Suddenly the archaic setting clashed with modernity.
It was cold, wet, and windy at the top of the tower, and we all squeezed in to fit among the tangle of ropes that connected to the bells, while Deacon Herman took his spot in the center. I had never been up in a bell tower before, and the deacon explained how the ropes controlled the bells, while we waited for the clock to strike 12.
“Okay, and… now,” said Deacon Herman, and we all snapped on our earmuffs. Fortunately, I did have my phone with me, and with their permission, I filmed the incredible performance that unfolded:
The entire tower shook, and I could feel each toll through my whole body, even with the hearing protection. I could not believe what I had just witnessed, as the reverberation of the last bell ran through me. Deacon Herman looked so happy when he was done.
Turns out, he has a knack for percussion instruments and a lifelong love of music, so St. Michael’s started incorporating it into the daily routine.
After the bell ringing, we stayed at the top and asked him and Father Michael questions for a while, about the bells and the history of the Russian Orthodox church. Their sense of joy and playfulness was evident in their love for being a part of the church. I felt incredibly grateful that they chose to share it with me that day. I will forever fondly remember those two and a half minutes at the top of St. Michael’s Cathedral, while Deacon Herman played his music to the heavens through those bells.