Cathedral Bells

Bells have a rich history. Used historically in time of war, floods and disasters. Early times, called people to work - almost a time clock. Called people to prayer. Tolled when Pope Francis was named Pope. During the French revolution, they took the bells from Notre Dame, melted them down and used them for cannon balls.

Presenter: Fr. Mike McCaffrey, former Rector of St. Joseph’s Basilica

One of the first sound instruments - songs The bells are ringing for me and my Gal - “For whom the bells toll.” According to the Oxford companion to music “The bell is the most universal of all musical instruments, as until the advent of radio, it was the on with the largest audience.”

Tonight interested primarily in their liturgical use. Back in the 10 century the practice of tolling the bells for Compline - evening prayer - in monasteries. In the 13th Century, our good friends the Franciscans rang the bells in the evening and they would recite three Hail Mary’s.

Most popular practice was ringing the bells at 6 am, 12 noon, and 6 pm to recite the Angelus. Seminary days - St. Joachim - always knew what time it was. One priest friend shared that at the parish he was helping out would do the three rings and one time in the middle of the night he got a call - “want you to know what it feels like to be awakened in the middle of night” those damn bells at 6 am ruin my morning sleep.

Also the “passing bell” which was rung slowly when a death was imminent in the parish.

Original plans for this church included a bell tower - basement 1924 did not include them. Even in 1963 the budget did not allow for a bell tower or bells. 1980 we had the tragic fire and then after cleaned up, began search for bells under Fr. John Rose. When I was Rector, contracted with a Company in Ohio to install three new bronze bells cast by an outfit in Holland. Baptistery roof had to be reinforced to hold weight. Checked ringing by laws with City of Edmonton Noise Abatement Bylaw.

Through a very generous donation of one hundred thousand dollars by Edith Stevens - a parishioner who lived down on Victoria Ave and 17th st - the bells were installed in honor of her parents, Mr. & Mrs Banks - inscription on one of the bells. Also window of Jacob, donated in honor of the Banks. We blessed the bells on June 10, 1990. In some Roman Catholic countries, bells are christened with the full ritual as infants are, also having sponsors assigned.

A few days later the bells sounded at the funeral of a slain city police officer, Ezio Farone - park at entrance of high level - biggest funeral ever had when I was here. Can’t remember if we rang them for the Angelus or not - before Masses on weekends - ring after funerals and weddings.

Don’t recall any complaints about the ringing - mostly “Father, love the sound of the bells”.

Witness: Margaret Athaide

On April 2nd, 2005 the bells of the Basilica rang…not at the regular times, but in the middle of the afternoon at three-o-clock. The deep, clear sound resonated across the skies and through the wall of the General Hospital where I was finishing up my shift caring for the sick, elderly patients. At the sound of the first bell, I caught my breath and paused as the significance of the ringing settled around me ---Pope John Paul II had passed away. I shared the news with the patient and explained the significance of the bells. Also being of the Catholic faith, the patient and I shared a short prayer for the repose of the late pope’s soul.

The sound of the Basilica’s bells brought sadness for the death of the Pope, but somewhere deep down, that ringing stirred memories, long forgotten, of my childhood in Goa, India. Being a small village, most everybody that was Catholic, knew one another. A cathedral rested atop a hill in the center of the village. The bells that sounded from the Basilica that day, reminded me of the church bells that would ring in my village to inform the town that a member of their community had just passed away. At the sound of the bell ringing, I remember my friends and I would stop wherever we were and whatever we were doing to pause and say a short prayer. My parents, along with their friends and relatives would gather in the home of the deceased person to pay their respects to the family and we’d gather for the funeral mass a few days later. On April 2nd I was reminded of the power of the church bells.

After my shift ended, I walked to the Basilica for the five p.m. mass. Many parishioners filled the pews…some expressing sadness… others in prayer. Usually I sat in a pew toward the center of the cathedral, but today I was drawn toward the tabernacle, which was cast in a faint warm glow. The votive candle stands were nearly full, their flickering lights silently adding warmth and respect to the sad evening. Somehow being close to where the Blessed Sacrament waits, made me feel closer to God as I prayed for the soul of the Pope.

That day at the Basilica, I was deep in prayer and had no idea that I was photographed until I went to work the next morning and was handed a copy of the Edmonton Journal--I was on the front page, hands clasped together, deep in prayer. Shocked. Astounded. Embarrassed. A whirlwind of emotions blew through me and when they settled, I realized that the photo had captured something significant—a moment where nothing else mattered except for my faith.

The Basilica’s bells continue to ring today—loud and strong. They announce every mass and on my weekends to work, I hear the ringing and my heart rings with joy.