When the Washington National Cathedral's Gloria in Excelsis central tower was dedicated in 1964, it contained a set of peal bells imported from England. It wasn't long before students at the adjacent National Cathedral School clamored to learn to ring those bells.
The "change ringing" bells differ from a melodic carillon in that their weight and "full-circle" action suit them for ringing in patterns. The interest by the NCS students led the school to create in 1964 the Whitechapel Guild, then and now one of the few bands of youth change ringers in the United States.
From the start, a primary goal of the Guild was to achieve a "full peal"—ringing the bells in a predetermined mathematical sequence of unrepeated permutations. On seven or fewer bells, this represents a minimum of 5,040 permutations, known as changes, and lasts hours.
After years of training, five NCS students—Sarah Irwin '67, Chris Kelsey '67, Betsy Proctor '67, Sarah Scott '67, and Diana Wriggins '67—joined their instructor, Rick Dirksen, in accomplishing this goal on March 21, 1967. In doing so, they became the first all-American band of ringers to complete the feat.
Fifty years later, on March 18, six ringers gathered in the Gloria tower to reproduce that accomplishment. Quilla Roth '66, Cecily Rock '71, and Beth Sinclair '81 joined NCS employee Alexander Taft and Rick DuPuy (STA '99), both members of the Washington Ringing Society. Dirksen (STA '61) was there, too. He retired in 2010 after 45 years as Whitechapel Guild instructor, but he returned to the Close from his Kentucky home to serve once again as conductor.
Each person grabbed a rope, and they began.
The gathering served as a commemoration but also as a round of applause for the Whitechapel Guild, which has introduced more than 400 girls to change ringing. Dirksen noted in an email that many of those students have continued to ring long after graduation, several going on to hold leadership positions in the North American Guild of Change Ringing and the Washington Ringing Society.
Roth, a founding member of the Whitechapel Guild, is one of them. She led the Washington society for many years; today Sinclair holds that position. In 2010, Roth replaced Dirksen as instructor of the Guild, and this year she is teaching 11 students in the meticulous, demanding art of change ringing. The Guild performs for the entire NCS community each year at the annual Festival of Lessons and Carols.
After 2 hours 42 minutes, the ringers finished the final changes to complete the exact same peal as was rung by the Guild in 1967. Before leaving the tower, Dirksen entered their feat into the tower's peal book as the 153rd successful peal at the Cathedral.
Congratulations to all the Whitechapel Guild ringers, past and present, for their enduring music, echoing down the ages.
Read more about the Whitechapel Guild: