When you open the door to Bridge
Street United Church on a Sunday morning, there are many things you could hear.
Voices singing hymns, the organ reverberating throughout the building and the
shuffling of papers and slight coughs during the weekly sermon from the pulpit.
Very occasionally, however, you can hear bells.
Bridge Street has one very large
bell inside its tower. To reach it, a series of rickety staircases must be
climbed past piles of pigeon droppings and the occasional nail sticking out at
a rather unsafe angle. Once the bell has been reached, not much can be done
with it. It is automated, and will ring only when triggered by a small button
in the church office.
However, there are other bells that
ring in the air of the church sanctuary. Handbells, played by dedicated church
musicians, lend their chimes to the torrent of sound that echoes around the
church each year. But these bells can’t be automated. They need hands, and Judy
McKnight has been playing the bells at Bridge Street since 1998.
“I was raised in the Salvation
Army, so there was lots of music there” says McKnight, with her hands clasped
in front of her in the basement library, near the church kitchen. We are seated
at a small wooden table, and the sound next door of the rest of the
congregation drinking tea and making conversation after the Sunday service is
muted by the wooden walls and bookshelves that surround us. McKnight is a tall
woman in her sixties, with blonde hair cut short, deep brown eyes, and glasses
that are almost frameless. Her voice is soft, but strong, and a feeling of
stability and calm radiates through the room as I conduct my interview.
McKnight is a native of the Quinte
area, born in Belleville and raised in Trenton by parents heavily involved in
the Salvation Army, and the music that is a cornerstone of the organization. “I
sang in the Songsters and played in the timbrel brigade,” she says, recalling
earlier days. Marches would be held, and tambourines would ring through the
streets of Trenton. McKnight would sing in numerous choirs, and would continue
during the summer by heading off to Roblin Lake in Prince Edward County. Her
eyes lit up when she spoke about the camp and its place in her life. ““I went
several summers to the Roblin Lake Salvation Army Camp, both as a student at
music camp and then as a counselor”. The music camp was a focal point for her love
of music and eventually led her into her work at Sir James Whitney School for
Sir James Whitney sits along Dundas
Street West, one of the main roads for the Quinte region. For travelers going
down its length, the school looks quite different from its surroundings, a
grand building built of brick and glass, with a broad field and sturdy walls
running along its perimeter. McKnight would see the school quite often. ““When
I was a teenager, we were driving to Trenton from Belleville to church on
Sunday mornings. I would see this long
parade of deaf students going from school to the various churches in town. They
would come and worship in a church here with someone interpreting for them, and
then they would go back to the school”. This provoked a curiosity in McKnight,
one which would only be increased when she worked as a counselor at Roblin
Lake. One camper in particular would prove to be a catalyst. “One of my summers
when I was a counselor at Roblin Lake camp, we had one of the deaf students as
a camper. His name was Tony, and he was profoundly deaf, couldn’t speak a word.
Couldn’t hear a thing, but he worked very hard to fit in with the other kids,
and I just became very interested in deaf kids”.
The interest that started at Roblin
Lake led McKnight to spend thirty-four years as a high-school level teacher at
Sir James. She taught many students, and still runs into a few them after having
been retired for ten years, though her signing is slightly rusty. “When I meet
some of my former students on the street, I can carry on a conversation in sign
language with them, but sometimes they have to correct me (Laughs) they think
its fun that they can correct the teacher”.
Her life as a teacher had its ups
and downs. “In my second to third last year there, I had a young lady who was
very bright, but she was a very troubled student. She did everything she
possibly could to disrupt things in the classroom, she was always looking for a
fight, and I eventually had to ask to have her removed from the classroom.”
McKnight pauses here, her eyes
looking past me to the bookshelves that line the room. “At one point, the other
kids in the class came to me complaining about her. I had heard through the
infirmary that she was being put on a different medication, a new mood-altering
drug. I told the kids to cut her some slack, give her a chance, she’s on a new
med and they’re trying to see how it works to stabilize her moods”. Looking
back at me, she goes on. “It got back to her very quickly, and she came roaring
down the hall at me and thought she was going to kill me, and another teacher
intervened and stopped her.”
From that point onward, McKnight
was more careful with the way she spoke to her students about classroom
matters, and for the most part the end of her career went smoothly. Throughout
her time as a teacher, she maintained her musical talents by singing in the
church, and later on playing the bells. The church journey, however, also had
its ups and downs.
Her first marriage had ended in
divorce, which led her to leave the Salvation Army with her one-year old son in
tow and spend three years in the Anglican Church. However, her church at the
time did not allow for women to join the choir, so she started going to
Holloway Street United, on the west bank of the Moira. She rose to both sing in
the adult choir and conduct the youth choir at the church, but later on left
after many young families in the Holloway congregation moved on to another
church. She found herself at Bridge Street United, and has stayed there for the
past thirty-four years, meeting her second husband and blending their families
together. Though her husband has since passed away, she has her children and
grandchildren to keep her occupied, and always she has music.
“Music is always the thing that
probably touches me most”. McKnight is more relaxed now, hands folded in front
of her on the table. Her eyes are lit up and the excitement shows in her voice.
Works such as Handel’s Messiah and Haydn’s Creation were a great joy to take
part in producing, and with every new work and every song that she sings,
McKnight feels as though her spirit is fed. “It’s not just a musical
discipline; it’s a spiritual food as well”.
As the interview concludes, the
noise of the congregation gathered in the church basement begins to swell, and
McKnight begins to gather her things and get ready to go socialize. Bidding me
a good day, she turns and walks out the door to go drink tea and coffee with
the other choir members. The sounds of Bridge Street, be it of bells, hymns, or
the voices of the congregation gathered in fellowship, continue to echo
throughout the building. Judy McKnight will add to that chorus, and she will
enjoy every minute of it.