NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—The unveiling of large murals throughout New Brunswick was a theme here throughout 2021, and there’s time yet this year for one more, in a prominent, albeit hidden location: inside the bell tower at St. Peter the Apostle University & Community Parish.
The cathedral-style church was constructed at 94 Somerset Street from 1854 to 1865, while its bells were added in 1870.
St. Peter’s chime of bells is “one of only three of its kind in New Jersey,” according to the parish web site.
A section on St. Peter’s Bells reads: “The bells are fixed in the highest level of the bell tower and played by a console of levers, known as a chimestand, on the second level of the tower. Nine clothes-line ropes connect the levers of the chimestand to the clappers of the bells, allowing the ringer to play from three stories below.”
The chimestand is where the mural exists.
The present bell ringer, or “Chime Master,” Andrew Farkas, commissioned his then high school friend Kenneth J. Rozsahegyi to paint the mural back in 1974.
Farkas had conceived of a mural that would allow chimestand visitors to visualize the bells as they truly appear at the highest point of the tower, which is more difficult to access, up an additional set of rickety stairs.
To add a few complementary touches to the nearly 50-year-old mural, Farkas recently invited a second artist up the bell tower, New Brunswick-based sign painter Aaron Leszczynski.
Leszczynski added the name of the original painter Kenneth Rozsahegyi and “PINXIT 1974,” Latin for “painted 1974,” in an 1800’s style script; added Farkas’ name and “Chime Master” on an existing painted scroll; on that scroll painted a red wax seal stamped with the Alpha-Omega, which harkens back to early Roman Catholic history; added his own signature beneath Rozsahegyi’s; and touched up some shadowing for additional texture.
A carpenter by trade, Leszczynski braved the steps to the top of the bell tower to witness the bells for himself.
“It was a climb,” Leszczynski said in a phone interview with New Brunswick Today. “It’s almost straight up in the air. And I really want to fix those steps too, but I only have so much time,” he said.
He called adding to the mural a once-in-a-lifetime job in getting to see the “whole behind-the-scenes of this beautiful church.”
“The bell strings go through the different levels of the whole entire tower. [Farkas] re-did all of that too, which is part of the story,” he said.
“He was in high school, and he read all these things about the bells that would ring when someone famous would come to New Brunswick, or when soldiers would come back, or any kind of historical event. And any kind of holiday event, he always heard about the bells,” Leszczynski said.
“And he was like well, what’s this, what’s behind this door? And he just found his way up there, and he re-did that when he was in high school,” Leszczynski said, referring to some repair work that Farkas had done on the bells’ operations.
Farkas was not available to comment for this story, but he is an expert on the subject, authoring a booklet last year titled “The Tower Bell Chimes of Saint Peter’s Roman Catholic Church” in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the bells’ 1870 installation.
A series of quick facts about the bells are posted on the church website, where Farkas is identified as one of only six known ringers:
– The bells were blessed in a solemn ceremony on June 29, 1870 (the feast of Ss. Peter and Paul).
– After a few days for installation, the bells were first chimed on the Fourth of July, 1870.
– Among the first songs played was “Hail Columbia,” considered during that era to be our nation’s unofficial national anthem.
– The largest bell weighs 2,100 pounds.
– There are nine bells in total, each tuned to a specific note.
– The notes are F, G, A, Bb, C, D, Eb, E, F (an F-Major scale with the addition of a flat-seven).
– The bells most often chime in F-major, Bb-major, or G-minor.
– On the second level of the bell tower, there is a mural depicting the bells as they are seen on the top level.
The church is also unique in having a bell ringer as opposed to a computerized program. If the bells are ringing, it is Farkas on the strings. And now Farkas’ name, along with Rozsahegyi’s, have been painted into the bell tower by Leszczynski in recognition of their tribute.
Leszczynski founded his company, The Point To Point in 2013. He has a small shop in his hometown of South Plainfield from where he does his woodworking. He paints all of his signs in his New Brunswick apartment, off George Street.
His signs can be seen across town at places like Thomas Sweet Ice Cream and Spina Records, both on Easton Avenue, and Shine of the Times on Bayard Street. He also builds custom furniture and products from scratch.
Adding his mark to the historic St. Peter’s Church satisfies an aspect of the trade that fascinated him from the start.
The history of hand-painted signs “goes along with the history of America,” Leszczynski said. “There’s so many different aspects to it.”
He recently “gold-leafed” a barbershop in nearby Milltown.
“It’s a cool, kind of invisible art when someone points it out to you, when you don’t really see it,” he said. “And then you start to see it everywhere, and you start to see the way that our traditional lettering is done.”
Behind that tradition are artists like himself, and like Rozsahegyi and Farkas – characters in a story that come to life in the tolling of a bell, or in a hand-painted sign.
Seen and heard, yet often only passively so. Meanwhile, Leszczynski has equipped himself to see something more.
“It was a person that woke up in the morning, sat there that day, and lettered that whole entire thing,” he said, remarking upon any antique painted sign.
“And the little ways, the little imperfections – what makes art great – is like a heartbeat from that artist. That straight line that they tried to do, that went a little crooked, that’s the heartbeat from someone that did that, who spent the time and showed appreciation for it.”
Increasingly that’s Leszczynski himself, whether inside the bell tower at St. Peter’s, across storefronts in the Hub City, or beyond.
Ben Kelly reports on music for New Brunswick Today.
In 2022, he won the first place award for Best Arts & Entertainment Coverage from the NJ Society of Professional Journalists for his coverage of the music scene in New Brunswick, past and present.