Deacon’s music a bell-towering achievement in Sitka

Source: KTOO Public Media

August 15, 2016


Deacon Herman Madsen plays the bells atop St. Michael's Cathedral. (Katherine Rose, KCAW)Deacon Herman Madsen plays the bells atop St. Michael’s Cathedral. (Katherine Rose, KCAW)

The bells at St. Michael’s Cathedral in Sitka are
ringing again after a temporary hiatus, thanks to a new
deacon with musical abilities and no fear of heights.

The bells of the Russian Orthodox church haven’t
been played for a while.

That is, until Deacon Herman Madsen showed up.

“I always use the example of the medical
field,” Madsen said. “The priest is like a
doctor and the deacon is like the nurse to the

He and his wife, Mary, moved here at the beginning of the
summer to help with tours at the church and assist Father

It wasn’t always Herman’s plan to work for the
Russian Orthodox Church.

“I was a wild child, I grew up with my
grandmother,” Madsen said. “My mom and my dad
sort of abandoned me. So my grandmother, at 70 took care
of me. I nearly ended up in jail, but then my grandfather
stuck out his neck for me.”

After spending 11 years at the academy, he debated joining
the seminary for quite a while, but didn’t fully
commit to the idea until he had an experience at the tomb
of St. Herman in Kodiak.

“All of a sudden right next to this tree where St.
Herman’s hut used to be,” Madsen explained.
“Incense just started pouring out of the ground, and
the smell of St. Herman’s relics, surrounded

Deacon Herman said it smelled of roses.

It was unmistakably a religious calling.

“I just hit the deck and said i really need to go to
the seminary, I don’t have any choice at this
point,” Madsen said.

He’s been in the seminary for three years. Though he
has a background in music and performance, playing the
bells was a new adventure.

“When I got here there was no one really playing the
bells at the time. So I just started taking it up and
doing it every day at noon,” Madsen said. “I
didn’t take any official classes on bell ringing.
Because of my background in singing and playing
instruments I had an ear for that kind of thing. I also
played the spoons.”

So playing the bells wasn’t too much of a stretch.
There are eight bells, a full octave, which makes it

“It’s really nice on sunny days, come up here
and read a book,” Madsen said. ‘Whew!”

The bells themselves have an interesting history.

They were made in Holland, and ordered by the Russian
American company in St. Innocent. They lasted up to 1966,
when an accidental fire broke out and destroyed the

“In the fire these bells melted into clumps of
metal,” Madsen said. “The men in the community
gathered up all the metal, had them resent back to the
original foundry, and these bells were recreated from the
originals metal.”

The church was rebuilt based on 1961 drawings of the old
cathedral, and featured its signature green domes and
golden crosses.

Each bell is connected to a thin string, a bit thicker
than a strand of yarn. Those strings connect to a podium
with holes in it. The two largest bells are attached to
two huge wooden pedals.

Madsen plays the bells a little like bongos.

“Instead of pulling the strings, I tap all of the
strings, and that’s why I can play it so fast, and
in so many different ways. That’s why they sound so
awesome,” Madsen said, laughing. “You get some
pretty awesome exciting bell ringing that happens that
gets you kind of pumped up. It’s really kind of

Herman and his wife will leave Sitka at the end of the
summer with plans to come back next year, and hopefully
make Sitka their home.

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