Note: article written in 2011
Many bell enthusiasts, members of church congregations, teachers and thousands of children in Alberta might not know John Nelson Sr.’s name, but nevertheless they owe him a word of thanks for any joy that bells have brought them. It was John who first introduced our province to handbells, by placing the first Schulmerich 2-octave bell set at the First Baptist Church in Calgary in 1963. And did the art of handbell ringing in Alberta catch on! Since then, John has placed more than 180 bell sets in Alberta schools, and has placed many carillons in churches and important buildings across the province. At the age of 90, John is still helping teachers fix and learn about bells. Just this May, Calgary handbell teacher Vanessa Matthews wrote, “I had John come out and look at them… The man is amazing!” He is amazing and is a true part of our province’s bell history.
In his young adulthood, John Nelson may not have suspected that bells would be in his future. He actually began his career as a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and later moved into the sales industry. A love of handbells and carillons finally drew him to a sales position for Schulmerich in 1953, a position he has held for 58 years. In his first ten years with the company, he introduced Schulmerich's Carillonic Bell instruments to Churches, Universities, Colleges, and many Business companies. John recalls that his “best result[s] was the work I accomplished with the donor for the $250,000.00 Carillon & the 140ft. Bell Tower at the University of British Columbia in 1966, which I eventually replaced…for the very High Tech Digital 318 Bell Carillon in 2007.”
For Alberta’s 100thAnniversary gift to the citizens of Alberta, in 1966, John also installed a Schulmerich Mark V 300 Bell Carillon in the Legislature building for the Government of Alberta. At the time, there was a special Carillon room designed for the Carillon's console & the room also had a group of chairs so that people could enjoy listening & watching the carillonneur play the Carillon from the Organ type Console. Just this year in February, 2011, the Alberta Legislature Carillon of 1966 was replaced for the beautiful Schulmerich "CELEBRATION"Carillon. This is played from a Three Manual Bell Console and commenced operating when this spring’s Government session opened.
Throughout churches in western Canada, John has placed more than 100 smaller carillons. It is the larger installations, though, that John recalls specifically, like the 247 Bell Carillon on the Mount Royal College campus, which was later sold to the Kirby College Board in 1969. John wrote that it was “installed at the new Garrison of Mount Royal College Campus in the Garrison area which opened in 1973. In 2010 Mount Royal University was to celebrate its 100th Anniversary and the board of Governors decided to replace the original carillon. The new Hi-Tech Schulmerich Digital 300 Bell Carillon Americana was ordered in June & installed in August as one of the 100th Anniversary celebration events."
John Nelson also had a role in Calgary’s most prominent skyline feature: the Calgary Tower (officially opened June 30th, 1968). John recalls that “the Tower was prepared during its construction for the openings for the Carillon.” John placed the magnificent Schulmerich Mark 5 - 300 Bell Carillon in it, where it was played from anactual Pipe organ type three manual console. Today visitors to the Tower hear the new Hi-Tech Automatic Digital Carillon when it is played daily at different times.
When Schulmerich first introduced its new handbell instrumentin 1963, John was instrumental in bringing it to Calgary. John’s wife, Carol Nelson, directed the first bell choir at First Baptist Church. At the time, directors like Carol had to arrange all their own music for the bell choir, as handbell music publishing was still in its infancy.
Why and how did handbells find their way into Alberta Schools?
And why is this a western Canadian phenomenon?
At the time that Carol Nelson was directing the first Schulmerich handbell choir at First Baptist, the music director at that church was the late Cyril Mossop. Fortuitously, Cyril Mossop also happened to be the Music Supervisor for the Calgary Board of Education. He was looking for a music instrument for the Elementary Schools that would have the same educational possibilities and public interest as the bands did in junior high schools. Cyril Mossop ordered from John Nelson, the first Schulmerich two-Octave set of Handbells for Mount Royal Junior High School, where the late Mrs Ruth Birk was the director. This began the amazing story of bells in our Albertan schools. As John shares, “School music directors have found that children learn the art of sight reading easier when they are a student in the handbell choir. They also learn to concentrate & depend on the other members of the choir. They become part of a large instrument & they really enjoy it.”
At the present time the Calgary Board of Education has more than 100 sets of Handbells in their schools and the Calgary Catholic School District has more than 35 sets of handbells in their schools. Individual schools continue to order sets of handbells each year. In many private Charter and Christian schools, handbells have become a very important part of their overall music program.
It’s not just Calgary that has seen the growth of bells. The same development has been experienced throughout Alberta in Edmonton, Lethbridge, and many other smaller communities throughout the province.The provinces of Saskatchewan, Manitoba and British Columbia have also experiencing the joy of having handbells in their schools and churches.
John is not only a bell salesman, expert repairman, and installer; but he also hosted and organized some very large and successful Handbell Festivals. One such success was the 1984 Handbell Festival in Calgary, Alberta, which was held at the University of Calgary. More than 600 ringers & directors of handbells joined in the Mass Handbell Choir. The late Don Allured, the top handbell director & musical composer in the United States was the Massed Choir Director and clinician. It was a great success, even attracting a choir to venture here from Japan.
Another of John’s successful festivals was the one he coordinated at The University of British Columbiain 1986. It was held during the same time as the World Fair. There were more than 600 Handbell ringers and directors attending that event. John Nelson recalls that there was “much praise was given by the directors that attended from United States, Canada & Japan…because there was not competition[s] between choirs etc.”
The ALGEHR board is also indebted to John. Along with Stan Morris, John endeavored to get a board organized for Alberta.He spearheaded this movement and became the first ALGEHR president. All of us in this current ALGEHR membership have reaped the rewards of John’s vision. John’s love of music and passion for handbells has impacted a great many people. Of his long career in handbells, John says, “It’s good to spend your career doing something you love, and there is no question that I love bells.”