Joyful noise or unholy din? New church 'bells' mean discord

Joyful noise or unholy din? New church 'bells' mean discord

(AP Photo/Lisa Rathke)

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BURLINGTON, Vt. (AP) — The sound system next door is making it hard for Olga Lopatina to love thy neighbor: Christ the King church.

Since last summer, the church has been broadcasting the sounds of bells and hymns to its Burlington neighborhood, a joyful noise unto the Lord that some here think is just an unholy racket.

It's not just the volume, but the timing and type of tune that irks Lopatina, who said she loves the natural sound of bells after growing up in Ukraine.

"It's not really music," she complained of the hymns as she stood in her backyard one recent evening after yet another unwelcome serenade. "This one, it sounds like a teenage iPhone recording, like the first generation ring tones that you pay 99 cents."

The dispute has fueled online jokes — some that posters felt were disrespectful of their faith —and complaints that the bells violate Burlington's noise ordinance. A meeting with a mediator was scheduled for March but was postponed until May 18.

It is perhaps not surprising the tolling of the electronic bells has struck a chord with some neighbors in the largest city in Vermont, a state deemed the least religious in the nation by a Gallup Poll last year.

Larry Miller said not only is the noise intrusive but he finds it offensive from a religious perspective. "It's not my religion," he said.

The recorded chimes are played three times of day from the church which also has a school — at noon, when the kids are let out of school at 2:45 p.m. and at 6 p.m. — and after funerals and weddings. The church, which did not return a message seeking comment, had agreed to some modifications to the volume and length of the recordings but critics question whether it has stuck to them.

Some in the south-end neighborhood enjoy the chimes and music or at least aren't bothered by them.

David Workman, a parishioner whose daughter attends the school, said as a Roman Catholic the ringing of bells and playing of hymns "are religiously significant."

It would be nice to have a bronze cast bell and someone to pull on the rope but that would be costly, he said.

I do not understand how an entity can broadcast these sounds into my neighborhood, into my house, onto my property without going through any kind of approval process or discussing with the neighborhood or anything.

–Larry Miller

"I've always liked living in a place where I could hear bells. You used to be able to hear the St. Joe's bells or the congregational church bells in downtown Burlington," he said. "There's something I like about that. It makes the city seem not too big."

Some others who don't mind the chiming understand why some do.

Last year's Gallup Poll showed that 22 percent of Vermonters identified themselves as "very religious" and 56 percent as "non-religious," based on more than 500 interviews done in 2013. By comparison, the poll average showed that about 41 percent of Americans identified themselves as very religious.

Critics have complained that the church is violating Burlington's noise ordinance — which prohibits unreasonable noise. Though the complaints haven't sparked a court fight, it's not unheard of: A Rhode Island man sued Narragansett's Thomas More Catholic Parish over chimes he said contributed to the end of his marriage. The suit was dismissed in February.

The city of Burlington is evaluating whether the church is violating the noise ordinance but would rather have the two sides work out a solution through mediation, assistant city attorney Gregg Meyer said. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington referred questions to the church.

Katie Berk, a psychologist who works from home about a block away from the church, said she used to take a break between 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. but has changed her schedule because of the musical interlude every afternoon. She and her husband can hear the sounds inside their home, when the windows are closed, she said.

She and a number of other neighbors want the mediation concluded by the end of the month.

Miller said the angry neighbors are open to mediation but he thinks the church is stonewalling. Now he said he's less open to compromise and wants the whole system shut down.

"I do not understand how an entity can broadcast these sounds into my neighborhood, into my house, onto my property without going through any kind of approval process or discussing with the neighborhood or anything."

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