TRÉMENTINES (AFP).- Deep in the French countryside, laid out on beds of wood and metal, some of the grand dames of liturgical music are receiving treatment for injuries sustained throughout their long and storied careers.
The "patients" at Bodet, a company in the western Maine-et-Loire region that restores old church bells rescued from steeples, have quaint names such as Marie-Josephine, Marguerite and Melanie-Cornelie.
Each weighs between several hundred kilos (pounds) and a few tonnes and they all look as if they have been in the wars.
"When you see the state in which they arrive we're delighted to be able to give them a second wind," says 39-year-old Tanguy, one of two welders tasked with breathing new life into the bronze heavyweights.
Crouching down over his charges, Jean-Luc Ferrant, director of Bodet's bell restoration business, delivers his diagnosis.
"On this one, it's the clapper which has ended up denting the metal by dint of striking," he says.
Another has a gash running down the body, while a third has lost one of its "ears", one of two holes in the crown used to hang the 750-kilo instrument.
Like clocks, Ferrant explains, bells "always repeat the same movement, decade after decade. And so they wear out, lose their ringing sound and can even break".
Mercifully, the prognosis is good: within a few weeks they should back in their belfries, ringing in the new year.
Surviving wars and revolutions
Over two centuries after the French Revolution, when churches were attacked as a symbol of the hated Ancien Regime, France has around 150,000 bells which toll for weddings, funerals and other religious celebrations.
Only a few thousand of those that survived the Revolution remain, however, with many melted down during World War I and II to provide metal for weapons.
Treasured as works of art, 5,000 are listed on the national heritage register.
Bells sent to Bodet to be restored are immersed in a purple dye that shows up cracks.
The workers then strip off any damaged metal and put the bell in an oven.
It is heated slowly for several hours until reaching several hundred degrees -- the exact temperature is part of a secret, patented technique -- which turns it from a weathered green to a sooty black in the process.
Once out of the oven, the welder has less than an hour to repair cracks, fill out worn striking points and replace missing sections.
After that, the bell goes back into the oven so that the new metal blends into the structure.
It is then cooled, any extraneous metal is filed off, and worn inscriptions and motifs are restored.
The final stage of the makeover sees it brushed to restore the original bronze patina.
Bodet -- one of only three companies in Europe that restores old church bells along with Germany's Lachenmeyer and Eijsbouts in the Netherlands -- has nursed some 1,100 bells back to health since 1991.
They include France's oldest bell, a 1239 model from the central Cher region, and the bells of an abbey from Aveyron in the south-east, as well as some offerings from neighbouring Spain.
Some were lurking incognito in steeples until being dusted off.
"Sometimes people tell us 'I was baptised under that bell and my grandchildren got married in that church!'", said Christian, another welder who like Tanguy was forbidden from giving his surname by Bodet to prevent him being poached by the competition.
Ferrant notes that, although few French Catholics practise their faith -- only 7 percent of those who identified as Catholic attended mass at least once a month, according to a 2010 poll -- they remain deeply attached to church chimes.
"It lays down markers and gives rhythm to everyday life," he said, arguing: "This precious heritage must be kept alive."
© Agence France-Presse