Photo by Andrew Draskoy
In the days before wristwatches and cell phones, the Basilica towers were our temporal authority. The western tower had a sundial, the eastern tower its clock and bells. Up until 1905 the bells would ring out each night in November at nine pm. Parishioners were expected to stop what they were doing, drop to their knees and recite Psalm 130, De profundis.
These days it feels deep and dark amongst the old stone and woodwork of the eastern tower. The stairs are solidly made of wood, so steep they are almost ladders. It’s a rough, working space filled with telltales of its history: different types of stonework reveal many repairs and modifications; four-foot tall lamps that used to adorn the outer corners of towers; a dusty little office full of file cabinets and antique hardware, built into a landing to oversee the reconstruction work of the past two decades.
The belfry is home to a single impressive bell. Nearly six feet wide at the base, it is intricately inscribed and decorated with shamrocks and Catholic symbols. It was made at the Murphy foundry in Dublin in 1850 specifically for the Basilica. All that is in the clock chamber now is the spectacular six-foot clock face and a couple of gears. The mechanism has been removed for restoration. Outside, the hands are still in place.
The Basilica of St. John the Baptist is a visual and cultural focus point of the capital city, and one source of its old world feel. The noonday bell is itself a sonic signature of the downtown. Early next year the turret clock will be reinstalled and working once more. The western tower will see the restoration of its sundial, and the bell will be rejoined by its seven smaller siblings. The peal of eight bells has not been heard for decades, but St. John’s will soon have a melodious chorus of bells ringing out the noon hour and special occasions.
— Andrew Draskoy
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