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Ask the Observer: How do the Basilica bells work?

Behind a stained glass window, a narrow wooden staircase inside the walls of the Basilica winds up to 24 bronze bells that send chimes echoing across campus every 15 minutes.

The largest bell, named in honor of St. Anthony, weighs eight tons and stands seven feet tall. In 1867, the bell arrived in South Bend via train, traversing the Erie Canal and the Atlantic Ocean along its journey. The bell was made by Bollee and Sons in Le Mans, France — the same city that produced the Basilica’s stained glass windows.

Third chime’s the charm: St. Anthonys rocky beginnings

Just as the St. Anthony bell was completing its journey, a taxpayer protested to prevent the University from bringing the bell across the wooden train bridge to cross St. Joseph River. The bell sat idle in South Bend for a year until the University constructed a raft to float all eight tons across the river.

Much like the University’s famous Golden Dome, which rose from the ashes of a smaller Main Building, the St. Anthony Bell boasts an origin story of perseverance. 

The previous two bourdons, the largest and lowest-toned bells in the carillon, weighed in at around 3,000 pounds. The first fell down during a windstorm, along with its bell tower. The second bell also fell and cracked. The one that hangs in the Basilica today is the third bourdon to ring on campus. 

When the second bell cracked, Fr. Edward Sorin and Fr. Patrick Dillon, the second University president, launched a bold campaign to purchase a bell far larger than the previous ones, about four times heavier than the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia.

“That’s how they got it paid for. They said, ‘We’re going to bring in the biggest bell in all of North America, and you get your name on it if you donate.’ So that’s how they got people excited about it.” Katie Pelster, Basilica tour coordinator, said. 

Donors’ names remain engraved on the bell today, along with the year it was made and the founder, Bollee and Sons. Those who climb the staircase to tour the belltower leave a similar mark inside the Carillon room, writing their names and class years on its wood beams in black Sharpie.

From grounded to towering

When the St. Anthony bell first arrived on campus, the bell tower was not yet complete, so they placed it in a wooden belfry outside. 

“Whenever they were ringing it, they had this goal that they would make the bell hit the sides of the barn that it was in, and that’s what they considered a good ring,” Pelster said.

When rung to these standards, the chime could be heard for a roughly 27-mile radius, reaching Elkhart and Niles. Today, the sound stops sooner due to a difference in ringing method and modern traffic.

After finally arriving on campus, St. Anthony’s journey was not yet complete. The bell had travelled thousands of miles west, but one direction remained unconquered — up.

The University had to hoist the bell up a bell tower that is more than 100 feet tall without the aid of modern construction equipment. Only horses, pulleys and hours of human labor were used to lift it.

“It is a wonder that it made its way all the way from France to here. It is just massive. It is big and heavy,” current University sacristan John Zack said.

Still ringing

While St. Anthony’s ring might not travel miles anymore, the pounding still has impressive volume, especially for those who have been in the tower when it rings. 

“You can feel it in your chest. You hear the wind-up of the hammer, and then all of a sudden — boom,” Zack recalled when St. Anthony rang during his very first tour of the belltower.

The Basilica’s largest bell isn’t rung everyday, but those on campus can hear its tone during special feast days or after a Notre Dame home football victory. 

The bourdon used to be rung with long wooden trestles, which used manpower to make it swing, but since the 1960s it has been automated. Now, Zack has the ability to control St. Anthony and the 23-bell carillon digitally from the first-floor sacristy. Some bells can still be rung from the keyboard of the carillon halfway up the bell tower staircase. The keys, which look like those of an organ, connect to metal wires that mechanically tug clappers inside corresponding bells.

Each day, the quarter hour bell rings once at quarter-after, twice at half-after, thrice at quarter-to and four times before the hour strike, which also marks the number of the hour. The Alma Mater plays each day at 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. The Angelus series rings at noon and 6 p.m.

Contact Maggie Eastland at meastlan@nd.edu.