For a full history of WELS Handbell Festivals, including festival locations, click here.
Handbells have been used in American churches since the early 1900s. It was not until the 1970s that the first handbell choirs were formed in the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS).
The first congregations with handbell choirs were Emanuel, St. Paul, MN; St. James, West St. Paul, MN; and Siloah, Milwaukee, WI. Wayne Wagner, a former teacher at Emanuel, began a bell choir at Dr. Martin Luther College (DMLC), New Ulm, MN soon after he was called there.
Siloah used their handbell choir as a goodwill ambassador. Directed by Pastor Rolfe Westendorf, the Siloah choir rang in other WELS congregations. In search of audiences for the handbell choir, Pastor Westendorf turned to DMLC for help. DMLC readily extended an invitation and the Siloah choir made plans for a trip to Minnesota. In arranging the tour iterary, Pastor Westendorf contacted Pastor Stadler at St. James who welcomed Siloah’s visit, as did Emanuel.
On May 13, 1979, Pastor Stadler gathered and informally introduced the handbell choirs from three WELS congregations—Siloah, Emanuel, and St. James. He jokingly announced that this was the first nation-wide WELS Handbell Festival. Little did he realize that he had planted the idea. The following year, the first organized WELS Handbell Festival was held.
With the growth in popularity of these festivals, it became impossible to hold them in a church. Festivals moved to gymnasiums.
A major change in format came with the 1986 festival. There were now 33 congregations and schools with handbell choirs. Concerts would be too long if each individual choir rang their own piece. Also, the sound of one bell choir could get lost in a large gymnasium. So, in 1986, the entire concert was changed to mass ringing. The participants chose to ring with either the Jubilate or Exaltate sectional choir. Each sectional choir rang three pieces. In addition, all the choirs rang seven selections en masse. With this format, there was more music to prepare.
Beginning in 1987, three sectional choirs were used—Laudate, Jubilate, and Exaltate.
As the growth of congregations with handbells and festival participants continued, it was decided to hold alternately regional and national festivals. Two regions were established, East and West, divided approximately by the Mississippi River. More than 50 WELS congregations were known to have handbell choirs.
The need for continuity and better organization with written policies of festival guidelines prompted a committee to be names at the 1994 festival. Cheryl Diener was asked to chair the committee. Gwen Tjernagel and Timothy Russow were also named to the committee. This committee was asked to plan both regional festivals for 1995. The same music was chosen for both regional festivals. Two sectional choirs were used—Laudate and Exaltate.
The WELS Handbell Festival Committee presented their written proposals at the 1995 Directors Meetings.
At the 1996 Directors Meeting, the proposals were accepted. Three regions—Northeast, Southeast, and Western—were formed. National festivals would now be held once every three years. Cheryl Diener was elected the national chairperson. Each region selected a representative. The chairperson and regional representatives form the WELS Handbell Festival Committee.
89 WELS congregations are known to have handbell choirs.
As of 2000, WELS Handbell Festivals have now been held for 20 years. While not a region, the congregations in Michigan held their own festivals in 2000 and 2001.
The 2002 national festival was the largest handbell festival. 532 ringers came from the 39 congregations and schools. Cheryl Pasbrig was elected national chairperson, following Cheryl Diener’s six years of service in that capacity.
Michigan held another festival in 2003, but is still a member of the Southeast Region. In an effort to tie the large Southeast Region together, the 2004 regional was held in St. Joseph, MI.
As of 2005, 133 WELS & ELS congregations and schools are known to have handbell choirs. Kim Pilz was elected national chairperson.
As of 2008, 148 WELS & ELS congregations and schools are known to have handbells.
As of 2011, 157 WELS & ELS congregations and schools are known to have handbells. Brian Schwanz was elected national chairperson.
In 2017, the WELS Handbell Festival Committee commissioned a piece in honor of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Dr. John Behnke and Kenneth Kosche arranged “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less.”
160 WELS & ELS congregations and schools are known to have handbell choirs. Janeen Roska was elected national chairperson.