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home : features : parish life

3/1/2012 9:01:00 AM
IMPROVING SPIRITUAL HOME
Cathedral's chimes will soon ring out
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This object housed the ropes pulled to rewind the tower's clock mechanisms by hand. The original lower tower clock mechanism is still on an underhanging fifth level; it was replaced by an electric clock and hands on the eighth level. Tower visitors engraved their initials.
BY ANGELA CAVE
STAFF WRITER

As the old song goes, "There were bells on a hill" - and a Northville man wants you to hear them ringing.

Joe Connors, a retired computer consultant and self-proclaimed "accidental chime historian," is restoring the clavier of wooden levers that controls the bells in the north tower of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany.

He expects to finish the "spiritual home improvement" by June and hopes that, for special occasions, bell-ringers can override the electrical system in favor of manual chime-playing. That probably hasn't been done in 50 years, and Mr. Connors fears the art could be lost.

"It's fading for a number of reasons," he said, noting that those in charge of chimes in past centuries jealously guarded their responsibilities, creating just a small circle of chime-players.

But in a world where items like vinyl records can resurge in popularity, there could someday be a bell renaissance.

"There's always a chance," vowed Mr. Connors, a parishioner of St. Francis of Assisi Church in Northville. "But it's going to take a little bit of effort. You run into the right person, and then something gets done."

The "right" people Mr. Connors encountered to begin the cathedral project last summer were Thomas Savoy, the cathedral's music director, and Rev. William Pape, its rector.

The Albany Diocese's 160-year-old mother church had just undergone a $6 million interior restoration (see previous stories at www.evangelist.org) that included new paint, an altar platform, refurbished pews, a new electrical system with enhanced lighting and repairs to the floor.

Nine of the 10 bells, as well as the chimestand, date back to 1862, the year construction on the north tower was finished. They were cast at the famous Meneely Bell Foundry in Watervliet (then called West Troy).

The chimestand was built by hand - crude and unfinished, Mr. Connors pointed out - and installed on the fourth level of the tower.

Mr. Savoy joined the cathedral staff in 2010. He discovered that mistakes had been made during the previous decade in installing both a keyboard to toll the bells electronically and an electrical console that programs automatic chimes. As a result, the familiar four-note Westminster Chimes melody, which sounds four times on the hour, sounded off-key.

"They had programmed [it] to play with notes that didn't exist on the bells," Mr. Savoy lamented. "It would drive people crazy."

Mr. Savoy and others used their astute ears to reprogram the four notes, but he decided to deprogram other hymns until the cathedral can afford to buy new software.

Mr. Connors volunteered to restore the ability to play the bells by hand. His interest in bells dates back to his childhood, when his father rang the bells at St. Patrick's Church in Troy - guarding his own duties with the same strictness as the cathedral's 19th-century bell-ringers.

"He wouldn't let me [help] because he was afraid I would make a mistake and the whole city would hear it," Mr. Connors recalled.

As an adult, Mr. Connors played the trumpet in the U.S. Army band. He returned to Troy in 1992 - and to St. Patrick's. He repaired the church's 12-bell chime, expanded its repertoire and played it every Sunday until 2010, when the church closed.

He also started visiting all the churches in Troy with bells, noting: "Kind of as a tribute to my father, I wanted to make sure they all worked again."

Mr. Connors' work mushroomed from there, taking him all over the Diocese and the Northeast and as far away as Europe. "It just kind of grew on me," he said.

At the cathedral, he found that many of the chimestand handles that connect to steel cables and pulleys were broken; when they're all repaired, bells can be tolled during weddings and funerals.

Being able to manually ring the bells, said Mr. Savoy, will be "a symbol of the worship life of the community - but it's also a symbol that things are happening down here" at the cathedral.

Father Pape must have thought so, too: On Mr. Connors' first climb up the bell tower, the priest "went right up in the tower and led the way," the repairman said.

Mr. Connors has already restored seven of the bells to playable condition. The 75-year-old takes his time climbing up - there are eight levels, reached by steep ladders - and working in the cramped spaces amid dirt, holes in the floor and scattered cables.

"Towers were not meant for people to go roaming around," he said. "You have to be careful."

However, of the 300 such towers Mr. Connors has climbed, he said this cathedral's tower is among the safest. He once had to swing across steel rods like monkey bars to reach a tower in Newark, N.J.; he found the tower at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City high, but easy to climb because of its spiral staircase.

Mr. Savoy is grateful for Mr. Connors' work on Albany's cathedral and looks forward to hearing the bells more often: "It makes you feel good," he said. "It certainly links me as a music minister here to my predecessors. You can't walk into this place without a sense of history."

For more information about Mr. Connors' work, visit www.allchimes.org.





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