Festival History
For a full history of WELS Handbell Festivals, including festival locations, click here.

Beginnings—1970s-1985

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.