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City council members ask if quieter church bells possible

By Brandi Makuski

Two members of the Stevens Point City Council have become involved in an informal request to lower the volume of bell chimes at St. Peter’s Church.

Father Arul Joseph Visuvasam, the St. Peter’s pastor known in the community as Father Joseph, said he was contacted on Dec. 12 by District 4 Councilwoman Heidi Oberstadt inquiring whether the church could lower the volume of its bell.

“She told me that another city council member asked her to contact us,” said Visuvasam, who came to St. Peter’s in 2011. He added, “there are a lot of people living close to the church, and we’ve never had a complaint in all that time until now.”

The church bell chimes hourly, he said, also playing a series of bell tones three times daily—at 6 a.m., 12 p.m. and 6 p.m.—summoning faithful Catholics to prayer. The bells also chime during certain holidays, and funeral or wedding celebrations.

Visuvasam said the church was first contacted about a month ago by the unhappy resident, whose name he could not recall, complaining about being awakened by the church bells early in the morning.

“He said he was working hard and he needed his rest, and he wasn’t able to sleep,” Visuvasam said. “I explained I couldn’t make the decision by myself, and that I’d have to take it to our building and grounds committee.”

Councilwoman Tori Jennings, seen here in April, has returned her nomination papers for re-election in April 2019. (Metro Wire photo)

After some research, Visuvasam said the committee determined the bell was controlled electronically and the volume couldn’t be altered.

“He wasn’t satisfied, and said he was going to complain to the city,” the pastor said. “I said to him, ‘That’s up to you’.”

The city’s neighborhood improvement office said while it hasn’t taken any complaints about the bells, Neighborhood Improvement Coordinator Mark Kordus said he did receive a call on the issue about three weeks ago from Councilwoman Tori Jennings, who represents the city’s 1st District.

“Tori Jennings said she had an issue with a constituent, and wanted some advice,” Kordus said. “I told her because it’s a noise-related issue, that goes through the [police department], not our office.”

City police say they rarely hear concerns about church bells but did take one complaint about St. Peter’s in September. According to Assistant Police Chief Mike Rottier, “the complainant was directed to speak with the church and/or alderperson,” adding SPPD did not issue any citation.

Kordus said his office has been asked previously to study excessive noise issues—he referenced commercial air conditioning systems as a specific concern voiced by one member of the council—in some parts of the city using a decibel meter.

“My advice to Tori was maybe the resident could go to the church directly, or maybe use a decibel meter app on a phone to measure the levels,” Kordus said. “But I don’t have any further details; like I said, this wasn’t an official complaint, I don’t know who the resident is, and I have no idea if it’s factual or not. But we did not do any follow-up.”

Obsertadt said she had no firsthand knowledge of the complaint because she hadn’t spoken with the resident, either, but approached the church at Jennings’ request because it is located inside District 4.

“I asked about their bell mechanism and if there was a volume variable, but it sounds like it’s a stationary mechanism,” Oberstadt said. “I did not speak to the constituent so I don’t know who it is, or where they live, or how long they’ve lived there.”

Visuvasam said he wrote a letter for Oberstadt to pass along to the unnamed resident, which reads in part, “The church is located here almost for 150 years and the church bells have been in function for so many years, and that it is the tradition of the Catholic Church to ring the bell at certain times for prayer.”

The church currently has no intention of trying to reduce the volume even if it could, he added. The bells remind residents they’re part of a close-knit community, he said, even if they’re not particularly religious.

“Usually, our Catholic tradition, there is always a bell when a church is built,” Visuvasam said. “People consider it the voice of God calling them to prayer.”

When asked for comment on this story, Mayor Mike Wiza said he recalls taking “a few” complaints about church bells during his 14 years as an alderman representing the city’s 4th District. Wiza said he believes the resident who complained lives somewhere on Union St., but said he hadn’t spoken with them, either.

“When I was on council it never rose to the level of getting another alder involved,” Wiza said. “If it’s just one person making a complaint, maybe there are underlying issues that we don’t know about and the church bells themselves aren’t really the problem. Now, if several people are making the same complaint, that’s another thing; then maybe there’s really a problem. In terms of this situation, I probably wouldn’t have taken it that far.”

The Metro Wire contacted Jennings via email to ask if she could provide additional information. Jennings responded with one word: “No.”