Montreal·Special Report

Heaven's Bells: The secret of the St. Joseph carillon

The oratory’s bells have a little-known French connection.

The story of St. Joseph’s bells isn't well known even though they've rung for Montrealers for decades

St. Joseph’s carillon is the only one in Quebec and one of 11 in Canada. ( Geoffrey Vendeville/ Concordia Journalism)

The bells of St. Joseph’s oratory are hidden in plain earshot.

The peal of the 10,900 kilogram bells is so loud, it can be heard from Queen Mary Road hundreds of meters down the hill. But few know for whom—or how—the bells toll.

Despite its size, St. Joseph’s carillon, the instrument used to sound the bells, is easy to miss on a tour of the oratory.

“I used to hear the bells since I was little when I came to the oratory, but I never knew there was someone who played them with an instrument,” said Andrée-Anne Doane, who, in 2009, became St. Joseph’s fourth titular carillonneur.

“For many people, it’s something that isn’t very well-known.”

With a big smile to match her Julie Andrews-style hair cut, Doane never misses an opportunity to show a chance visitor how the instrument works.

Last week, she taught three-and-a-half year-old Tamara Snir, on a tour of the oratory with her parents, how to use a closed fist to play the practice carillon’s long wooden keys, which look like broom handles. On the real instrument, each key is directly linked to a clapper that strikes the bell.

“This is great,” said Tamara’s mother, Catherine Gosselin-Snir, watching her daughter play. “Inside the oratory, they wouldn’t let her touch anything.”

Bells came to Montreal on loan 

St. Joseph’s carillon is the only one in Quebec and one of only 11 in Canada.

Unlike other instruments of its kind, the carillon at St. Joseph’s isn’t housed at the top of a tall, stately Victoria tower—like the 40,900 kilogram carillon in Parliament’s Peace Tower in Ottawa.

Instead, its 56 bells sit above the green copper roof of a small, discreet concrete building separate from the basilica, beside a cafeteria and a boutique selling souvenir postcards and saintly key chains.

The blessing of the bells on February 27, 1955 in the oratory’s sanctuary was no small affair. (St. Joseph’s Oratory archives)

St. Joseph’s obscure instrument has a secret of its own. Cast at the Paccard foundry in France, the bells were supposedly made to fit a belfry in the Eiffel Tower.

“It is, in fact, true,” Pierre Paccard, whose father sold the bells to the oratory, wrote in an email.

“But, the project was abandoned for technical reasons.I remember my father telling me so after having spent an afternoon in the Eiffel Tower structure.”

The plan was scrapped after residents of the seventh arrondissement in Paris complained that the bells would be too noisy, according to an article from 1967 in a now-defunct publication called Perspectives. 

Doane says the father Elphège Brassard, on a tour of France, obtained the bells for the oratory on loan for its 50th anniversary.

Hundreds of faithful packed the basilica on Feb. 27, 1955 to attend the blessing of the bells by Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger, Archbishop of Montreal.

The oratory made the carillon’s stay in Montreal permanent thanks to donations from the faithful. Its home in the low belfry near the cafeteria, on the old grounds of Brother André’s chapel, was meant to be temporary, but the bells are still there 58 years on.

St. Joseph’s carillon occupies a low belfry separate from the basilica. ( Submitted by Brandon Johnston)

Carillonneurs with an the audience

Carillonneurs who have played at St. Joseph’s say the instrument’s unusual location has its advantages.

“People can peer in through the window and watch as it’s being played. It’s clearly a live performance every time it’s played, and that’s really a benefit,” said Andrea McCrady, the oratory’s carillonneur from 1976 to 1980. “There’s more of a connection than most carillonneurs have with their audience.”

Since 2008, McCrady has tolled the bells in Parliament’s Peace Tower as the Dominion Carillonneur of Canada, the only paid full-time carillon position in Canada other than the job at the oratory.

McCrady learned to play the instrument at the chapel tower of Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut before landing a traveling fellowship to study the carillon at Europe’s prestigious carillon schools.

I was a sort of ... not who you would expect to be playing the carillon at St. Joseph’s,- Andrea McCrady, former St. Joesph's carillonneur

When she moved to Montreal in 1976 to study medicine at McGill University, she was then an unlikely choice for St. Joseph’s carillonneur.

“I’m not Catholic, I’m not even Canadian, much less Québecois,” McCrady said.

“I’m a damn Yankee and I’m not even francophone, although I spoke French when I was in Montreal. So I was a sort of—I don’t want to say a misfit—not who you would expect to be playing the carillon at St. Joseph’s, but it was certainly a privilege.”

Her predecessor at the oratory, Émilien Allard, is among the most renowned carillonneurs in the world—which is to say that he isn’t very widely known at all.

“His carillon voice is unique and immediately recognizable just as Mozart is for the violin or the Dorseys for big band,” said Gordon Slater, who succeeded Allard as Dominion Carillonneur of Canada in 1977 until 2008.

Allard was named Dominion Carillonneur of Canada in 1975, but wouldn’t stay in the job long; he died of stomach cancer in November 1976.

Today, the oratory’s bells still ring out toccatas, poèmes and other compositions penned by Allard, which are part of Doane’s repertoire.

About the project

Côte-des-Neiges Chronicles is a collaboration between CBC Montreal and the Diploma Program of the Department of Journalism at Concordia University.  Students from an online journalism course were asked to report on Montreal’s Côte-des-Neiges ​neighborhood.  They were also asked to push their storytelling skills through the use of photos, video and information graphics  The result is a wide-ranging look at the history of Côte-des-Neiges , its key attractions, and the individuals and communities that make up one of Montreal’s more diverse neighborhoods.