For centuries, church bells have served as timekeepers and guardians for communities, marked the joy of marriages, dignified the passing of loved ones, and called the faithful to God’s house for prayer.
After two years of silence, the bells of Denver’s mother Church, the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, resumed these services to the community this week following months of renovations and upgrades.
“We are excited to have them functioning again,” said Msgr. Thomas Fryar, cathedral rector since 2006. “Not only for the fact that it’s maintaining the heritage of the cathedral but it’s going to allow us to continue what they were put there for: to be a bit of comfort and solace in the middle of the city.”
The Cathedral Basilica is located at the bustling corner of E. Colfax Ave. and Logan St. in the heart of downtown Denver.
The bells last rang prior to a Dec. 2011 inspection called when several components of the original system were broken, thus limiting the full range of the bells. However, the inspection revealed more serious concerns with the old wooden frame. After 100 years of supporting the collection of massive bells—weighing in at 17,725 pounds—the frame was deteriorating due to age and exposure.
The Archdiocese of Denver then began a period of research and planning with general contractor, Haselden Construction, in coordination with The Verdin Company, a family-owned business out of Cincinnati, Ohio and bell specialist since 1842. Work to replace the wooden frame with steel supports began last May.
The new steel frame will hold the original 15 bells, made of pure copper and tin, cast by the McShane Bell Foundry Company in Baltimore, Md. When installed 101 years ago, they were one of the largest and most complete set of chimes in the country. Ranging in size from a 3,500-pound D flat to a 525-pound G flat, the collection was a gift of the family of John F. Campion, a Catholic philanthropist and Denver mining magnate in the early 1900s. Housed in the 210-foot east spire, they were rung for the first time Oct. 26, 1912, the eve of the cathedral’s dedication.
Their silver tones “proclaimed the glad news of the cathedral’s completion,” according to cathedral history book “The Pinnacled Glory of the West” by Father Hugh McMenamin, cathedral rector from 1908 to 1947. “Thousands lingered near to listen to the music.”
There are four large swinging bells and 11 carillons, or bells that play tunes. Recent renovations also included adding a Carillon Master Control system that allows the bells to be controlled remotely by a small console and keyboard located in the choir loft.
“Instead of sending up a pole that throws the clapper off at an angle,” Msgr. Fryar said explaining the original system of levers, rods and chains. “(The new system) is connected through wiring that sends an electrical circuit that will pull a magnet, and the magnet will pull the clapper and ring the bell.”
While an unlimited number of tunes can be added, more than 100 musical choices were preprogrammed into the cathedral’s new digital system, including Angelus bells which will ring at noon and 6 p.m. daily; Westminster Chimes, one of the world’s most popular tunes that will sound on the hour; seasonal hymns for Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter and patriotic occasions; and the familiar “ding dong” of swinging bells—or the Call to Worship.
“The very nature of the Call to Worship bell is to call people to the Lord,” said Msgr. Fryar. “To come, celebrate, give praise.”
As of this weekend, the third Sunday of Advent, the Call to Worship bells will ring five minutes before each of the six weekend Masses. In addition, the bells will be rung to mark solemnities, the feast of Corpus Christi and other processions, and special occasions such as ordinations, weddings and funerals.
“The bells will ring out a sound that hopefully will stir people’s heart and souls,” Msgr. Fryar continued, “and to speak about the presence of the Church in the midst of the civic center.”
What’s in a name?
It is a tradition to name bells in Catholic churches. The bells at Denver’s Cathedral Basilica are named and inscribed with an explanation of each name: Presentation; Inauguration; Verbum Dei; Immaculata Conceptio; Nicolaus Chrysostomus; Joannis Franciscus; Helena Maria; Maria (Phyllis); Sanctus Georgius (Roland); Sanctus Hugo; David Rex; Sanctus Michael; Joanne de Arc; Sancta Philomena; and Sancta Caecilia.
When will they ring?
The Cathedral Basilica bells will chime every quarter hour, toll the hour, on the hour, with Westminster Chimes, Angelus bells daily at noon and 6 p.m., Call to Worship five minutes before each weekend Mass.