Bells in downtown Charleston ring 26 times for Sandy Hook victims

ANDREW KNAPP/STAFF Doug Ludlum, an organist for 32 years at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in downtown Charleston, rang the steeple bell 26 times Friday morning to memorialize the Connecticut shooting victims exactly one week after the tragedy. Buy this photo

Red ribbons on light posts whipped in the breeze Friday morning as Leoma Doctor stood outside St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in downtown Charleston and listened to the steeple bell.

It’s Christmastime, but the clapper struck above King Street for a more somber reason.

Around 9:30 a.m., exactly one week after a school shootings in Newtown, Conn., the bell tolled 26 times to memorialize each of the victims.

Doctor couldn’t fathom the extent of the massacre that included the deaths of 20 children. But she understands the toll gun violence can take on a family.

Her grandniece was fatally shot just after Christmas last year on Victory Lane in North Charleston. Her sister was seriously wounded in the same domestic dispute, which ended with the suicide of her grandniece’s boyfriend.

“It was like it was happening all over again,” Doctor said of learning about Sandy Hook Elementary. “It affected my whole family. It was Christmas when it happened last year too, so I know how those people feel.”

Churches nationwide, including several in the Lowcountry, participated in the tribute. Some included an extra sounding to mark the death of shooter Adam Lanza’s mother, who was slain in her home.

The moment passed with little fanfare.

Doug Ludlum, a St. Matthew’s organist for 32 years, bowed his head as he rang the bell from a balcony overlooking the church sanctuary.

“I couldn’t believe it happened, especially at Christmas,” Ludlum said of the Newtown incident.

“Thinking (those children) wouldn’t be there for their Christmas program,” he said, his voice trailing off. “God is the answer for them.”

Parish administrator Liane Ziel said the church was eager to do its part to commemorate the crime’s one-week anniversary.

Like many people worldwide, she said, local churchgoers have struggled to explain the tragedy. It has shaken their sense of safety, she added.

Ziel has a 3-year-old daughter.

“I can’t imagine what those people went through,” she said. “Those poor children. Those poor families.”

Gun control was an unavoidable topic as passersby and church workers talked about the tragedy.

John Wright of North Charleston, a sexton at St. Matthew’s, called for tighter laws restricting those who can obtain firearms.

But the main issue, he said, is mental illness. Working at the church, he sees people walk in off the street who don’t know “whether it’s today or tomorrow,” he said.

“We have overlooked that so long,” Wright said. “There are so many people who look normal, but aren’t normal.”

As the church folks spoke, a group of schoolchildren on a field trip from Ashley Hall walked by.

They strolled to Marion Square, where they climbed onto a stage and started rehearsing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

“Like a light bulb!” they piped.

“Like Monopoly!” they chimed.

The sights and sounds brought tears to Doctor’s eyes. Dec. 30 will mark the one-year point since the slaying of her grandniece, 21-year-old Desma Doctor, and the suicide of 24-year-old Kevin Drayton, the father of Desma Doctor’s children.

Doctor hugged Wright as she wept.

“Those kids, they’re always asking if their mama is ever coming back,” Doctor said. “Everyone is supposed to be having a merry time.”

Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.

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