MILWAUKEE — Peter Mortensen recalls a time in the early 1970s when throughout Milwaukee one would hear the new year tolling. At midnight, churches rang their bells and factories blew their whistles.

“It was a wonderful metaphor for neighborhoods talking to each other,” he told the Catholic Herald Dec. 19.

He misses that – the sound and the connection it provided.

“It’s kind of sad we no longer do that,” Mortensen said. “It struck me that we’re experiencing synthetic New York (on New Year’s Eve) instead of real Milwaukee.”

While few factories remain, and those that do no longer blow whistles, the churches stand – churches of all denominations, churches with bells. If they accept the invitation from Bells of Milwaukee, Inc., residents throughout the metro area and beyond will hear 2017 arrive.

About a year ago, Mortensen, a resident of Riverwest, talked with his friend, Russ Klisch, about what a Milwaukee New Year’s Eve used to be.

“New Year’s Eve played out in the city as a community; people gathered downtown,” he told Klisch.

A member of St. Robert Parish, Shorewood, Klisch has an interest in historic preservation.

“We have a lot of bells here (in Milwaukee), but a lot of churches don’t use them,” he told the Catholic Herald Dec. 16, noting that the lack of use is often due to the bells being in disrepair.[su_pullquote align=”right”]To help:
Tax deductible contributions 
may be sent to: The Bells of Milwaukee, Inc. 2410 E. Olive St. Shorewood, WI 53211 Further information is available 
by calling or emailing Michael Horne at (414) 797-9484 or [/su_pullquote]

Klisch, owner of Lakefront Brewery, shared his interest in Milwaukee’s bells with Michael Horne, a writer and columnist for Out of that conversation was born Bells of Milwaukee, a tax-exempt public charity, of which Klisch is president. The organization’s mission, according to a November press release, is to “identify those buildings that have inoperable bells, and to seek to repair them to working order.”[su_pullquote align=”right”]For a list of the parishes whose bells will be ringing, click here.[/su_pullquote]

But the group’s first order of business is to have bells ringing throughout the Milwaukee area at midnight this New Year’s Eve. According to Horne, project manager for Bells of Milwaukee, the group asked the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to invite its parishes to participate – an invitation that was extended to the parishes by the archdiocese’s office of communications.

“Catholics have more bells than anyone else,” he told the Catholic Herald Dec. 15, noting Catholic churches often ring them on a regular schedule.

Horne, who lives in the Three Holy Women Parish neighborhood, has been posting video of church bells ringing on the Bells of Milwaukee Facebook page 
@bellsofmilwaukee. He encourages others to use their smartphones, tape the sound of their church’s bells ringing, and then post them to the page, too.

“This is community-wide,” he said of the effort.

In addition to churches that have committed to ringing their bells at midnight on New Year’s Eve, the city of Milwaukee will ring the Solomon Juneau bell in the city hall tower.

For Horne, the New Year’s Eve effort is an opportunity to “bring our neighborhoods together.” But there’s another reason.

“It’s disturbing to have people firing guns at midnight,” he said. “This is a compelling antidote to that, a sign of peace.”

Klisch concurred, noting the importance of getting non-working bells repaired.

“Once people start hearing bells, they will want to hear bells instead of gunshots. That’s our hope,” he said.

Mortensen, secretary of Bells for Milwaukee, said bells have the potential to build community.

“People on the North Shore might not be identifying with the central city, but if they hear bells, those bells speak to each community – that we’re something bigger,” he said.