By Alison Wood

It was the last weekend of April in 1983 when devoted handbell ringers and directors from all over Alberta and Saskatchewan made the pilgrimage to Calgary to attend a workshop with the guru of handbell ringing, Donald Allured. Don had a great reputation for his original bell music, his arrangements, his choir at Westminster Choir College, his ability to teach technique and musicality, and his favourite saying: “Playing the right bell at the right time is only the beginning.” He had been invited by John Nelson Sr. to come to Calgary and give a workshop to interested ringers. It was one of the first times that a clinician of that calibre had ever been in Alberta, and as I recall, there were people who thought we were not ready for advanced workshops. However, John had a dream, and he had tenacity!

Handbells had been ringing in Alberta for close to twenty years by that time. The First Baptist Church in Calgary andRobertson United in Edmonton (which became Robertson-Wesley in 1971) had been ringing Schulmerich bells since the mid-1960s. KnoxMet in Edmonton rang a set of Whitechapel bells made In England. By the end of the seventies, thanks to the work of John Nelson Sr.; Cyril Mossop, the School Superintendent in Calgary; and Fred Merrett in Edmonton, there was a real presence of handbells in the schools in both centers, and a variety of smaller centers were also getting involved with handbells, both in churches and schools. Malmark bells now had a representative in Alberta, and a number of people had become members of the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers (AGEHR) to improve their skills, since there was nothing like it in Canada.

By 1983, there were more than 100 sets of bells in Alberta Schools and our teachers were having difficulty finding pieces to play. Most published music in the US was sacred since most of their bell sets were in Churches. In Alberta, most bells were in the public school system and as such, teachers were required to use secular music, except at Christmas. Many were arranging their own music. The rest of us were using the educational lesson plans and multiple copies of music available from Schulmerich, the manual written by Don Allured called Joyfully Ring! and music from the books written by Martha Lynn Thompson.

At the 1983 weekend workshop, where the seed for the Alberta Guild was planted by John Nelson, Don went through the exercises in his new book, Musical Excellence in Handbells, and our knowledge of handbells increased exponentially. Dynamics, bell passes, table damping to change bells, weaving, new special effects, and the need and ability to play musically were introduced, practiced and used within pieces. We were excited, energized, and motivated to challenge ourselves with tougher music. I still have the pages and pages of notes I took, and can relive the frustration of my first crack at weaving!

John Nelson Sr. had expected this reaction, and at an expanded coffee-break, called a meeting and broached the idea of forming a guild like that in the US. This organization would be split between north and south, and each would take turns being in the executive position and ensuring that there was a Handbell Festival each year. Donald Allured, still known as the Father of English Handbell Ringing, was invited to give his advice and thoughts. By the end of the weekend, we knew what the goals were, had invited Don to return to Calgary in June of the following year to follow up his teaching at a brand new Festival event, and plans were made for the next meeting.

There were wonderful people from all over the province at that workshop, and it was there that I met some people who are still part of the history of the Alberta Guild – Rufus Schellenberg, and his family from Olds including his daughter, Carol(now Bergum) who would later become one of our presidents and was about to start University; Carol Petrie who would form The Saskatchewan Guild the following year; and Stan Morris, a music teacher from Calgary, just to name a few! We were all high on the music we were making and determined to make a go of it.

A month later there was another meeting in Calgary in which bylaws and other requirements were handled, but I will leave that story for Carol Bergum to tell, as she was there. Shortly after that meeting, all documents had been signed by the founding members, delivered to the Alberta Government and the Alberta Guild was formed with John Nelson as president.

Much has been done in the meantime, but I must say in hindsight that those first ten years were incredible. Donald Allured did return for the Festival in Calgary in June of 1984 that had been John’s dream, and the first Festival was a great success. At the end of the Festival, the first Annual General Meeting was held, John Nelson received the first Life Membership andLorna Davidchuk took over the Presidency. She was able to run an Edmonton Festival in 1985 while holding on to her determination to ensure the Alberta Guild had a solid foundation. By the time her presidency ended, Alberta Guild members had received several free workshops from the Alberta Government on Board development and had completed suggestions such as writing a manual, developed a set of instructions for all events such as Festivals, Clinics, Do –It- Yourself Workshops, and had run several of these events in various centres in Alberta. Carol Schellenberg followed as president. Handbell Discovery was just one of her great contributions to the Guild. Fred Merrett was next in line, reinstating youth festivals and revising bylaws, helping other Canadian guilds to form and representing Alberta and Canada in Korea and Japan. All of this was done without the help of computers or fax machines, rarely used in those days, and with a budget that depended mainly on memberships. I remember a number of us chipping in money to buy stamps to send out membership renewals, hoping that reimbursement might be possible.

Looking back I am amazed at the fact that we were able to run an International Symposium before the decade was over, and an extremely successful one at that, leading to a leadership position in the International Handbell Committee. I can remember the sense of shock and pride when representing Western Canada at AGEHR Area X meetings in my position as President of ALGEHR, and their reaction when I pulled out our manuals to make a suggestion on how to do their Festival. The American Guild was thirty-eight years old by then, but they did not have an organizational manual, and each festival was planned from scratch with no previous records for reference. Their respect for our accomplishments in the first nine years marked a substantial change in the relationship between us.

There have been some questions about when the Alberta Guild actually formed, and I will end by taking responsibility for the confusion. We were all exhausted by the end of the International Symposium in 1992, and I was not expecting to stay for a second term as President. By the time I had time to think about the first decade it was long over! We held a concert to celebrate in 1995, comprised of music by Canadian composers. However, the Alberta Guild was registered as a Society in 1983, the first handbell guild in Canada, followed by Saskatchewan in 1984, Ontario in 1985, B.C. in 1993 and Manitoba in 1996. We have developed a strong history over these thirty years, and have much of which to be justly proud!!

Alison Wood is a founding member and a Life Member of the Alberta Guild of English Handbell Ringers, and served it in a variety of capacities including President during the very successful fifth International Symposium in Edmonton. The concept of Handbell Guilds of Canada was launched in her living room, and Alison served as its first chairperson. She served on the International Handbell Committee for eighteen years and was Executive Director from 2004 until 2008.
John Nelson, first president of ALGEHR, was the major influence behind the expansion of bells into Alberta. He recalls that he “attended the Schulmerich Sales meeting in January 1963. The new Handbells were introduced to all the Schulmerich District Managers at that meeting. The company only had the two octave set of handbells developed & manufactured to show us. We formed groups & the first handbell choirs rang the handbells. What wonderful music we introduced to the world.”

“I brought the first two octave set of Schulmerich handbells into Canada & I sold that set to the First Baptist Church in Calgary. It was the 75th Anniversary of the church that year. My wife Carol directed that first choir & since there was no music written for handbells at that time, she wrote handbell music for the handbell ringers on large cards & continued writing the musical scores for the choir until the first handbell music was available from the music publishers in the United States.”

“It was Cyril Mossop who was the Music Director at First Baptist Church. He was also the supervisor of music for the Calgary Board of Education, and was looking for an instrument for the elementary schools. He thought the handbells would be ideal so he ordered the first set. Ruth Burke was the first teacher that had a handbell choir in Calgary.”

The birth of ALGEHR came out of this humble beginning. John Nelson writes that “Alison's message (the article above) certainly outlined all the information on the Handbell growth in the province of Alberta. I could not add much more.”