The Convent Hills Bells are being refurbished by a group called Bells of Milwaukee. (Submitted photo)

Michael Horne may need bell ringers if he fulfills his wish to ring in the New Year with a citywide peal of bells Jan. 1, 2019, at midnight.

Many of the city’s historic bells are in disrepair and out of tune. For the past two years, Horne has focused his efforts on giving a voice to the city’s silent bells with his charitable organization, The Bells of Milwaukee, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization.

With donations from the Argosy Foundation, Herbert H. Kohl Charities and an award from the Public Art Conservation Fund of the City of Milwaukee Arts Board, Horne, 64, a lifelong Catholic and writer for Urban Milwaukee, said the two bells from Notre Dame Convent and Motherhouse will be restored to their original splendor and tone.

“Our mission is to revive and perpetuate the custom wherein the bells of this city would ring in unison to herald the New Year. Additionally, we propose to research and document the incredible bell culture of Milwaukee, and to encourage public participation in all our pursuits,” he said. “We seek to ensure that the bells of the city ring as a message of peace.”

The bells, known as the Convent Hill Bells, located on public land owned by the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee, are slated for completion in May, and Horne hopes their restoration will lead to other bell restorations in Roman Catholic Churches of the archdiocese, as well as other churches and buildings in the city.

The idea to restore the bells occurred during a conversation with Russ Klisch, president, CEO and founder of Lakefront Brewery.

“I have known him for 30 years, since he tapped his first beer,” said Horne. “I was having my birthday party on Feb. 25, 2016, when Russ made a statement to me about restoring the bells to reinvigorate the old custom of ringing the bells on New Year’s Eve in union at midnight.”

After consulting with restorationist John Witkowiak from Lee Manufacturing, Horne began publicizing his quest for financial assistance in restoring the bells. On Feb. 1, Horne signed an agreement where the bells would be taken down and sent to a shop for restoration.
Witkowiak is excited to participate in the restoration and refurbishment of the historic bells, which are among the oldest in the city.

“Our mission is that all the bells of Milwaukee might ring in unison as a message of peace. This project is an important milestone toward that goal, and it is my hope that it will serve as a catalyst for others like it,” he said.

In addition to tuning and refurbishing the inside and outsides of the bells, new clappers will be built and the bells reinstalled in the shelter.

“With them only 7 feet off the ground, it won’t be nearly as complicated if they were on a steeple. We hope to have a solemn ceremony where Fr. Tim Kitzke, the Vicar General for Urban Ministry, will bless the bells in the presence of the School Sisters of Notre Dame,” Horne said. “When they come back in May or June, we hope to have a jubilation with new shiny bells.”

According to JoAnne Anton, Director of Giving, Herb Kohl Philanthropies, the organization considers Horne’s mission is a tremendous service to the city of Milwaukee.

“We are pleased to support the Convent Hill Bells restoration project, which is yet another reason Milwaukee is so special,” she said. “We recognize the volunteers and their commitment to the city, especially its rich history, its bright future and the people that make them so.”

Horne appreciates the romance associated with steeple bells and explained that the Convent Hill bells, especially, represent the great immigration to Milwaukee.

“There were considerable concentrations of Northern Europeans, the majority of which were Roman Catholic or Lutheran, with strong cultures of churches with bells,” he said.

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