Rome Has White Smoke, We Have Christopher Gernetzke

Christopher Gernetzke was ready to roll this week. He had his ear plugs, a good pair of leather gloves and his cell phone.  As “head sexton” for the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity, it was his job to ring the bell as soon as white smoke appeared above the Vatican to announce the selection of a new pope.

“I was at a meeting in the library when I got the tweet on my phone,” he said. “I said to the others, ‘I’ve got to go, we have a pope.’”

Christopher Gernetzke

Christopher Gernetzke

As he made his way to the bell, located at the top of the northwest corner of the seminary’s residence hall, he inserted the earplugs and put on the gloves. “I was warned by a previous bell ringer that it’s really loud up there, and he was right. It echoes like you wouldn’t believe. And the metal wheel you turn on the side of the bell to make it ring is cold and rough, so I’m glad I had the gloves.”

Gernetzke, of Evansville, Wis., is in his fifth year at the seminary and plans to be ordained in 2015. While he has rung bells for the weddings of friends, this was the first time he rang a bell to celebrate the selection of a pope.

“It was great,” he said. “I decided to ring it for 10 minutes.”

Gernetzke had planned not to leave campus until the pope was selected and he kept his phone close at hand so he could ring the bell as soon as the white smoke appeared.  As head sexton, Gernetzke is responsible for tending and cleaning the chapel, including linens, vestments, candles and “other duties as assigned,” such as ringing the bell.

Usually the seminary bell is rung just once a year, during the Eucharistic procession from the university’s Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas to the seminary’s St. Mary’s Chapel. That happens in the fall during the Annual Borromeo Weekend, named for St. Charles Borromeo, patron saint of seminarians.

The seminary’s bell originally came from a town in New York and was made in 1927.

Gernetzke said the view is pretty good from atop the residence hall tower. “You can see downtown Minneapolis in one direction and you can see a lot of the campus in the other. When I was ringing it I looked down and saw seminarians running from the Binz Refectory to our chapel.”