Last bell-ringer for Hanoi cathedral harkens to their call

By Phan Duong   February 17, 2019 | 04:24 pm GMT+7
For 22 years, Dao Manh Tien was the bell-ringer for Hanoi’s iconic St. Joseph’s Cathedral. They still ring inside him.

Dao Manh Tien rushed as fast as he could to the St. Joseph’s Cathedral even the prayer bell struck.

As the bells resounded in his ears, he realized that he’d done it again.

It was the second time that he’d hurried to the cathedral, forgetting that he no longer had his job.

For 22 long years, it had been Tien’s job to ring the cathedral’s bells every day, and it was a task he’d done to perfection with great devotion.

It has been two months since he retired, but his heart still thumps every time he hears the bells ring.

Tien lives in a house on Ly Quoc Su street, just a few meters from the cathedral. He had been the bell ringer for Hanoi St. Joseph’s Cathedral for so long that the habit kicks in, every now and then.

"I started to ring the bells in 1996, when I was 49 years old. I have worked here with three archbishops, four priests and a parish priest," said Tien, who used to be a worker in construction materials supply industry when he was young.

Now Tien usually sat in front of his house and looked at the cathedral. Photo by VnExpress/Phan Duong 

For 22 long years, it had been Tien’s job to ring the cathedral’s bells every day. Photo by VnExpress/Phan Duong

Once he became the church bell ringer, Tien would wake up at 4.30 a.m. on normal days, and 4 a.m. on special occasions.

The imposing cathedral was inaugurated on Christmas Day in 1887. It has two towers of over 31 meters high and five bells that were manually rung for more than 130 years, until Tien retired and an electronic ringer was installed.

He worked on a 10 square-meter wooden floor on the second storey of one of the cathedral towers, using ropes that connect the bell system. He pulled the ropes to ring the bills four times per day: the morning bell at 5 a.m., prayer bell at 12 p.m., afternoon bell at 6 p.m. and the final one at 7 p.m.

Besides ringing the bell, Tien kept over 20 keys of the cathedral’s doors, and was in charge of cleaning the church, hanging the flags and watering the plants there.

"My father's eyesight is poor, he has been hit sometimes by vehicles on the road, but he always knew exactly which key fits a certain lock," said Van, his daughter-in-law.

Tien always slept before 9 p.m. to stay healthy and wake up at the right time. He rarely went out of the old quarter. His hometown is just 18 kilometers away, but he rarely visited it, because he did not want to miss out on his job of ringing the bells everyday.

Tien's dedication has been acknowledged by the priests with thankfulness. For many years, he was invited to have a meal with the priest during new year holidays. Tien considered this an honor.

In the past, when skyscrapers did not dot the city's landscape, the sound of the cathedral’s bell would resonate in a large area, and people on the Long Bien Bridge, 7-8 kilometers away, could hear it.

"The bell symbolizes the call of God, so its sound needs to be consistent and powerful. Ringing the bell does not only require strength but also technique and soul. After ringing a bell three times, I would move to another one, creating sharp and echoing sounds," Tien said.

Many visitors have climbed up the narrow stairs to watch Tien do his job, and try pulling the ropes.

"One time, two foreigners held on to the ropes after pulling them, and they were dragged... and fell. They did not know that after pulling they needed to loosen their grip slightly before pulling them again," Tien smiled at the memory.

Four of the five bells in the cathedral are smaller than the other. Three small bells are used every day, while the fourth one is the sad one used solely for funerals. The grandest bell is only rung six times... every Christmas and other grand celebrations. It usually takes ten people to ring this bell.

"On the night of December 24, more than 20 people would gather in the two towers of the cathedral. Some people and I held the biggest rope. I would shout '1..., 2..., 3', and at the count of three, everyone would exert all their strength to pull the ropes. As the bell tolled, parishioners would come to pray for a merry Christmas season," said Tien.

Tien stood for a long time in front of the painting of the Cathedral, one of the paintings being displayed here. Photo by VnExpress/Phan Duong.

Tien stood for a long time in front of the painting of the Cathedral. Photo by VnExpress/Phan Duong.

One December morning, as Tien got off his daughter’s motorbike and walked, he felt dizzy and fell down. He was not hurt, but a medical check-up discovered a large tumor outside his kidney, requiring urgent surgery.

"I told my priest about my illness and was given peace before the surgery. The cathedral thought about installing electronic bells for the whole year. When I had the surgery, the priest reassured me that he would install electronic bells, so that the ringing would continue."

An electronic bell was indeed installed before Christmas. For Christmas 2018, for the first time in hundreds of years, the bell at the Cathedral was rung by a modern bell system. Tien, at home, was assailed by nostalgia as he heard the new sounds.

"Hearing Tien's bell ringing felt like hearing himself. He is a pious man who believes in God. With high responsibility, he has done the job for the past 22 years, now it is time for him to rest," said priest Antoine Nguyen Van Thang.

Today, in the bell room, Tien sees disassembled bell ropes lying on the floor, and an automatic ringing system on the wall. "The electronic bell is always on time and saves human strength, but the bell does not echo like it does when it is pulled by humans," he said.

Tien still visits the cathedral often to help with other chores.

He has stopped ringing the bells after 22 years, but Tien still hears their call.

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