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The bell rings out for Christmas

NASH, N.D. - Into the silent and holy prairie night, the old cast-iron bell of North Trinity Lutheran Church rang out another Christmas Eve. Built in 1893, the little church in the woods outside Nash closed in 1953. But as darkness fell Monday, t...

NASH, N.D. - Into the silent and holy prairie night, the old cast-iron bell of North Trinity Lutheran Church rang out another Christmas Eve.

Built in 1893, the little church in the woods outside Nash closed in 1953. But as darkness fell Monday, the lights came on and young men and women - great-grandchildren of the church founders - took turns pulling a rope in the entryway to sound the bell in the steeple above.

Outside, dozens of people with ties to North Trinity stood in the snow or sat in their cars in the gravel driveway and held cell phones to the sky so that loved ones far away could hear.

It was a poignant moment for Delores Swehla, who is in her mid-70s and listened from her home in Bowbells, in western North Dakota.

"She lost her husband a few days ago," said her niece, Lisa Held, 46, as she made the call. "She grew up just over there" - Held pointed into the darkness to the north - "past the woods and across the creek."


Her aunt came on the line, and Held first offered her sympathies.

Then, "Can you hear it, Aunt Delores? Can you hear the bell? Oh, it's so pretty here tonight with the snow. The church is all lit up, and there's so many people out here. They're serving hot cider inside."

She stopped talking and just held the phone up for a minute, and her aunt listened.

"It's wonderful," Swehla said before hanging up. "It connects me to my childhood."

Sharing the song

Sharing the bell's song was Ken Johnson's idea.

North Trinity was his church, the place where he was baptized in 1925. His parents worshipped in the little sanctuary, and his grandparents helped to build it.

"There was a lot of people who went to this church in the early days," he said. "They passed on or moved away. But all these years, that bell was still ringing on Christmas Eve. You can hear it for a couple miles, depending on the weather."


And you can hear it for hundreds of miles - thousands - if you arrange for a phone call.

"When my dad was the one ringing the bell, there was a young lady, Nellie Almen, who lived about a quarter mile away," Johnson said. "She'd stand on her porch on Christmas Eve and listen for it.

"She moved out to California. Every year at Christmas, we'd get a card from her. 'I'll be listening,' she'd say. She couldn't hear it out there. But she pretended she could."

In 1972, Johnson - who had taken over the bell-ringing from his father - had a mobile telephone installed in his truck. On Christmas Eve, he drove to the church, got the bell ringing and put in a call to California.

"I let her listen to the bell," he said. "She was surprised. And happy."

Nellie Almen died years ago. But other old church members or their descendants have taken up the tradition. On phones in the Arizona desert, in the Pennsylvania woods and in the resorts and cities of Florida and California, they listen for the singular sound of a cast-iron bell ringing in the cold of a December night in rural North Dakota.

For some of them, it is the sound of Christmas, the way that a lush balsam fir provides the one true memory-inducing fragrance of Christmas.

"It's home," said Shelley McCann, who called her sister, Pat Lowe, in Pittsburgh.


"She put it on the speakerphone so the whole family could hear - the kids, the grandchildren, everybody," McCann said. "They just listened for a while. No matter where you are, you hear that bell, and you're home."

Ringing in IraqTwo years ago, the bell of North Trinity sounded all the way to Iraq, where Johnson's grandson, Gavin, a member of the North Dakota Air National Guard, called in from his war post.

"He used to help ring the bell," his grandfather said.

This Christmas Eve, Gavin was back, helping cousins ring the bell.

Ken Johnson lives about a mile from the church, which he has helped to maintain since it closed. He and others reshingled the steeple last year and painted the outside. To make sure the bell was ready for this Christmas Eve, he and grandson Tom McCann, 19, went up the steeple to grease it.

There were five or six phones held outside the sanctuary last year, in addition to Johnson's. They reached about 30 people scattered around the country.

More than a dozen phones were working this Christmas Eve, sending the pure clang-clang, clang-clang across the country.

"Some have their answering machines on, so they can record the bell," Johnson said. "That bell has a pretty good tone to it still.


"We wish the people a merry Christmas, but we don't talk very much. Mostly they want to listen for a moment. Sometimes it's a larger family, and they pass the phone around so everybody can hear."

Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or chaga@gfherald.com .

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