Hungary: at the age of 80, the bell ringer preserves the tradition

Jozsefne Szedlak, also called Aunt Ilonka, rings the bell at the Catholic church in Tereny, Hungary, December 22, 2023 (FERENC ISZA / AFP)

Jozsefne Szedlak, also called Aunt Ilonka, follows in the footsteps of family traditions for five generations, leaving her home twice a day to go to the church in her Hungarian village and ring the bells.

She is one of the few bell ringers in Hungary and works to ring the bells at a Catholic church in Tereny, a small village of about 350 inhabitants, about 60 kilometers north of Budapest.

The heaviest bell weighs around 450 kilograms. “As long as my hands and feet can do it, there will be no automatic mechanism,” says the 80-year-old grandmother.

“People say, and it’s true, that bells die when they’re automated, so a bell that works with the push of a button doesn’t ring the same way,” he assures.

Jozsefne Szedlak, also called Aunt Ilonka, rings the bells at the Catholic church in Tereny, December 22, 2023 in Hungary
Jozsefne Szedlak, also called Aunt Ilonka, rings the bell at the Catholic church in Tereny, Hungary, December 22, 2023 (FERENC ISZA / AFP)

With the gradual installation of motorized systems since the 20th century, there are fewer and fewer bell ringers across Europe, explains Ferenc Bajko, a campanologist who studies the history of church bells.

“In Hungary, Protestant churches usually have them (belfries, editor’s note) and the bells are only used on Sundays. It is really unique when someone manually rings the bell several times a day,” explains AFP.

Aunt Ilonka is a “blessing” for the city of Tereny, says mayor Andrasne Brozso. Television crews and tourists regularly flock to the village behind her. Last June, Hungarian President Katalin Novak also visited him.

Aunt Ilonka usually rings the bell with only one hand at noon or in the evening and says a silent prayer that allows her to count the time.

Jozsefne Szedlak, also called Aunt Ilonka, in a room decorated with her parents' furniture and clothes, in the family home in Tereny, on December 22, 2023 in Hungary
Jozsefne Szedlak, also called Aunt Ilonka, in a room decorated with her parents’ furniture and clothes, in the family home in Tereny, Hungary, December 22, 2023 (FERENC ISZA / AFP)

But on important Christian holidays, such as Christmas, they must manually ring the three bells of a medieval church. He sits on a stool and simultaneously uses his hands and right leg to ring the bell.

Considering their weight, this is no small feat. However, Aunt Ilonka is not complaining: “There is no need to go to the gym,” she says with a smile.

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