Lawrence K. Johnson
Occupation – Sacristan
On December 31, at 12 midnight, after the midnight mass, Lawrence K. Johnson, the sacristan at St Mary Queen of Peace Cathedral at Palayam, will usher in the New Year by ringing the church bell. It’s something which he has been doing for the last 35 years or so. “The bell tolls several times to welcome the New Year. It is always a pleasure to ring the bell that night. It is a special moment,” he says.
Ringing the church bell is among the many duties that sacristans are expected to undertake in a church. A sacristan also needs to have knowledge of liturgical rites performed in the church. He has to maintain the church’s liturgical devices, ceremonial equipment, such as vestments, sacred vessels and ritual books. He also has to ensure everything is in place before and after the mass and prepares what is necessary for various ceremonies.
Lawrence, a soft-spoken native of Thiruvallam on the outskirts of the city, reaches the church at 5.45 a.m. everyday and leaves by seven or eight at night, or sometimes even later. He starts from his home very early to catch a bus – which includes covering 2.5 kms by foot – to keep everything ready for the morning mass that begins at 6 a.m. “I’ve no holiday, but I can take leave whenever there is an emergency. Usually in other churches, the sacristan can leave after the morning duties and return in the evening. But since this is a Cathedral, it is open from 6 a.m. to 9.30 p.m. daily and so I’m required to be here till evening. If there is midnight mass, as on Christmas eve and New Year eve, I stay back,” he says.
The rope from the bell, mounted high on the bell tower on top of the church, hangs down to ground level. Lawrence pulls the rope thus swinging the bell. The bell is rung in a particular mathematical sequence for the mass at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. On Sundays, there is a different pattern for ringing the bell. It is also rung for special occasions.
Lawrence, aged 55, took to the job of a sacristan because he is a staunch believer. “I was closely associated with the activities of the church in my diocese. There used to be training programmes on the liturgical rites and I’d attended them. When this church needed a sacristan, I was more than happy to come here,” says Lawrence.
He is happy that he spends a good share of his time at the church, which he believes, makes his wife, Sara, and two daughters, Alphonsa and Ancy, happy.
(A weekly column on the men and women who make Thiruvananthapuram what it is.)