PEI

Tradition meets technology: Basilica bells ring again with the help of special software

Tradition meets technology on Canada Day as the bells of St. Dunstan's Basilica in Charlottetown ring again for the first time in more than three decades.

'They'll know what time it is, they'll know whether there's a wedding or funeral or mass'

Leo Marchildon uses a special keyboard to practise playing the bells for their unveiling on Canada Day. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

Tradition meets technology on Canada Day as the bells of St. Dunstan's Basilica in Charlottetown ring again for the first time in more than three decades.

"We're very excited about this new addition to our repertoire of music making," said Leo Marchildon, music director at the basilica. 

Eighteen church bells were recently re-installed in the north tower of the basilica after a tune-up at the foundry in South Carolina where they were initially produced in the 1920s. 

The bells were taken down from the steeple in the late '70s because of structural concerns.

The restored and re-tuned bells at the factory in South Carolina before making the return trip to Charlottetown. (Submitted by Christoph Paccard Bell Foundry)

Ring on the hour

The bells are automated and computer software allows Marchildon to pre-record tunes and set them to be rung at certain times.

For example, there will be certain songs played for weddings, funerals and mass.

The bells will ring between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. every day, each time started with a short fanfare that Marchildon created.

The keyboard was created by the company that produced the bells and recently restored them. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

"The idea is, by having all these various automated melodies sequenced in, people in the local area will be able to tell what's happening at any time of the day just by hearing the bells," explained Marchildon.

"They'll know what time it is, they'll know whether there's a wedding or funeral or mass on the way so it will be sort of a local announcement." 

The 18 bells were restored in South Carolina and then re-installed with special reinforcement to hold the weight of the bells. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

New song

Marchildon uses a keyboard designed by the Christoph Paccard Bell company which allows him to play them manually on special occasions.

He has also written a new song that will have its premiere when the bells are played for the first time called The Bells of St. Dunstan's.

"What it lacks in originality, it makes up for in clarity," joked Marchildon about the title of the new piece. 

Preparing for the debut of the bells has not been without some challenges. 

Marchildon sits near the front of the basilica, at the organ console, and from that position, he has a hard time hearing the bells.

"I cannot hear the bells properly, they are very faint," he said.

Leo Marchildon sits near the front of St. Dunstan's Basilica at the organ console so he can just barely hear the bells. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

Marchildon was also not really able to practise.

"Unfortunately there is really no way at this point in time of hearing the bells properly in here, you'd have to go outside to hear them and of course everyone else will hear it," he said.

"So it's as if I'm trying to practise an instrument, but everyone hears it more than I do, it's very unforgiving that way."

The plan, he said, is to get some kind of sound system that would allow the bells to be heard in the church. He would like to someday include them in a concert performance at the basilica.

The bells were taken down from St. Dunstan's Basilica during the 1970s and kept in storage. (CBC)

'Sense of history'

Marchildon is excited to have the bells back at St. Dunstan's after so long in storage.

"I think it adds a certain sense of history to the city," he said. 

"This will be wonderful to actually bring this little bit of tradition back."

Marchildon says the spires of St. Dunstan's are one of the landmarks of Charlottetown and now have an acoustic element as well. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

He points to the spires of St. Dunstan's as one of the signature landmarks of the capital city.

"It's part of the cultural colour of a city like this, especially one such as Charlottetown which has such a historical importance," he said.

"It adds that acoustic element to it beyond the visual, because the splendour of the basilica is self-evident."

The bells will ring again as part of a Canada Day celebration at St. Dunstan's, starting at 9:30 a.m.

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