Montreal

Montreal church bells will ring in unison tonight, thanks in part to campanology, a dying expertise

Such sonic displays of solidarity are possible thanks to Michel Rowan, and the dwindling number of other campanologists in Quebec, who install and repair bells.

These bell experts are preserving the sounds of Quebec's history

At 6 p.m. tonight, churches across Montreal will ring in unison to mark " to signal the joy of Christmas reaching out to all our fellow citizens," according to the Catholic diosease of Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

On a field trip to Quebec City 50 years ago, Michel Rowan noticed the defects in the bells of Saint-Roch Church.

"I was charmed by this church and I noticed that the bells, which were beautiful, were not working properly," Rowan said. 

His fascination with the bells of Saint-Roch helped set him on an unusual career path. He became a campanologist, better known as a bell expert.

At 6 p.m. tonight, churches across Montreal are being encouraged to ring in unison "to signal the joy of Christmas reaching out to all our fellow citizens," according to the Catholic diocese of Montreal.

In late March, at the outset of the pandemic, Montreal's church bells also rang out in unison, as a show of solidarity with the victims of COVID-19.

Such sonic displays of solidarity are possible thanks to Rowan, and the dwindling number of other campanologists in Quebec who make their living installing and repairing bells.

As a historian and campanologist, Michel Rowan has studied bells for over 40 years. (Submitted by Michel Rowan)

Preserving heritage 

Daniel Désormiers, the owner of bell repair company Léo Goudreau et fils, and his son, Nathan, have been making the rounds to ensure as many churches as possible can sound their bells tonight.

"It's a busy time at the end of the year like this, especially for service calls," said Désormiers, who has been visiting roughly 15 churches per week to meet the holiday demand.

"[When] I'm travelling and I hear the bells all ring at the same time at noon, it's funny for me to think it's a little bit of my fault," he said.

Fresh out of electrician's school, Nathan said he's proud to join the family business, despite the physical work. 

"It's pretty much an honour to be one of the youngest ones to do the job," Nathan Désormiers said. "I take this as a challenge to [preserve] the heritage and keep the bells ringing." 

'Proud of their churches'

The first bells to be cast in Canada were installed in Quebec churches in the 17th century. They've been an integral part of the province's history ever since.

A wave of church building in the late 19th century saw hundreds of bell towers erected all over the province. Rowan estimates that between 1840 and 2000, 1,685 church bells were imported to Quebec. Ontario received 260 during that time.

But now a lack of funds for church-bell upkeep is a common problem across the province. 

Rowan suspects that in the last 30 years 1,000 bells originally in the province have been sold, transferred or discarded in junkyards.

The Saint-Jacques’ Bell Tower at UQAM is one of Nathan Désormiers’s favorite stops. (Valeria Cori-Manocchio/CBC)

Unlike in European countries — such as Germany, Finland and Austria — Quebec churches don't benefit from a mandatory tax to fund building maintenance. 

"In the city, there's more neglect. With parishes in small towns and in the countryside, people are still very proud of their churches and do care of the maintenance of the pipe organs and the church bells," said Rowan. 

Dinu Bumbaru, policy director and spokesperson for Heritage Montreal, says he hopes Quebec will establish a province-wide inventory specifically for bells to prevent the destruction of cultural heritage.

"It's something that should be done quite fast because of the shutting down of parishes and religious buildings and simple theft," Bumbaru said. 

Rowan has never forgotten the bells that inspired him 50 years ago. 

Since launching his own company and foundation in Rouyn-Noranda, Rowan has donated $60,000 worth of equipment to replace Saint-Roch's bell system, which had dated from the 1930s. 

"Today, the whole neighbourhood is very happy to hear the bells again," he said. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Holly Cabrera

Journalist

Holly Cabrera is a journalist with CBC Montreal. Reach her by email at holly.cabrera@cbc.ca or follow her on Twitter: @hleahcabrera.

With files from Valeria Cori-Manocchio

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