The Bells of St. John Cantius
Have you ever wondered about the many bells of St. John Cantius? This in-depth article shares the history, photos, and amazing stories behind our many bells.
For bells are the voice of the church;
They have tones that touch and search
The hearts of young and old.
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
With three sets of functioning bells, there may not be any parish church in the United States with as many bells. The bells of St. John Cantius are heard throughout Chicago's bustling River West, West Town, and River North neighborhoods.
The bells keep time, call to prayer, mark celebrations, toll funerals, play Christmas carols and religious hymns, and even commemorate Chicago’s sports team’s victories. Enjoy this in-depth article on the numerous bells of St. John Cantius and their amazing stories.
Special thanks to Community Bell Advocates for research assistance of the history of St. John Cantius’ bells.
Towering high above Chicago's River West neighborhood, the bells of St. John Cantius have been heard for over a century.
The Meenely Bells
The four main bells in the bell tower at St. John Cantius Church
St. John Cantius parish grew out of the influx of Polish immigrants to Chicago in the late 19th century. The opulent church, modeled after those from 18th-century Krakow, Poland, took five years to build; the four large bells were installed in 1897, one year before the church’s completion. Bells are one of the very few objects that the Catholic Church baptizes and confirms, and the pomp and circumstance surrounding their installation matched the importance of the occasion.
On Palm Sunday in 1897, Catholic societies from across the city marched in procession, waving society banners, streamers, and American and Polish flags. Bands and orchestras performed. The Rev. Vincent Barzynski, C.R., pastor of Chicago’s first Polish parish, St. Stanislaus Kostka, presided over the blessing ceremony, along with many other clergymen from Chicago and beyond. Children acted as godmothers and godfathers to the bells and presented colorful ribbons to attach to them. Local Polish newspapers noted the celebration as so elaborate that it was impossible to detail. Not everyone was pleased, though. Neighbors even then expressed some dismay at the installation of the bells, out of concern for their sleep or the constant reminder of death. Ultimately, similar complaints one century later would push the church to limit their bell ringing.
Three of the four bells installed in 1897 in the southwest tower, just like any other person baptized and confirmed in the faith, were given Christian names. The largest, St. Anne, (pitch B), was named after the collegiate church in Krakow where St. John Cantius served and was interred. The second largest bell, St. Anselm and St. Hedwig, (pitch D-sharp), was named after St. Anselm, known as the Father of Scholasticism, and St. Hedwig, a popular saint among Polish immigrants. The third bell, St. Florian (pitch F-sharp), was the name of another collegiate church where St. John Cantius served. St. Florian is also the patron of firefighters. The fourth bell, Sine Nomine, (pitch B), or Unnamed, has an inscription date of 1894 and lacks any specific inscriptions connecting the bell to St. John Cantius. All four bells were cast by Meneely & Co. from West Troy, New York, but the unnamed bell was likely cast by Meneely & Co. for another client and sold to St. John Cantius along with the three other bells. The largest bell, St. Anne, is the heaviest bell in a catholic church in Chicago, weighing approximately 5,500 pounds.
At 5,500 pounds, St. Anne, is the heaviest bell in a Catholic Church in Chicago.
The four bells rang out to send signals to its parishioners and also to mark momentous occasions. After their installation, the bells were not automated. Instead, one—maybe two—people would swing a bell by pulling on a rope connected to its wheel. If all bells swung together, a joyful peal would ring out for weddings and other celebratory events. For funerals, one bell would be tolled. Every day, the Angelus was rung at 6 a.m., noon, and 6 p.m. in its characteristic pattern of threes. The bells would also be rung before Mass to gather in the faithful. At times, they were purposely silenced. Then and now, to honor the solemnity of the Triduum, traditional Catholic churches cease to ring their bells. Clergymen instead use the hand-held wooden crotalus to signal the consecration and even to gather the faithful for Mass.
Bell ringing in the Catholic Church began in monasteries to signal the canonical hours. Monks as early as the sixth century used bells to maintain their rigid prayer schedule day and night. From the monasteries, bells moved into churches. By the 9th and 10th centuries, they were widespread in church towers throughout western Europe, and many towers had multiple bells, up to 10 or 12. They signaled the community to assemble for Mass or say a prayer. The blessed bells also had the power to drive away thunderstorms and demons. In the 13th century, a revolutionary new mechanism, clockwork, harnessed tower bells to timekeeping. From then on, bells marked the time at regular intervals without relying on constant manpower. The “cuckoo” clock-chime pattern used by St. John Cantius today is one of the oldest such patterns to be used and dates to the 14th century. Despite their new, secular time-signaling role, church bells continued to ring signals for Mass and prayer.
The bell foundry inscribes the bell with the name of the foundry, the date, and the dedication saints
Meneely & Co. from West Troy, New York was a common choice for bell casting in 19th- and early 20th-century United States. The bells were well known for their “beauty of tone.” The Meneely Bell Foundry supplied the replacement bell for Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, which originally held the Liberty Bell.
This foundry produced thousands of bells for the American market during its entire existence from 1825 until 1950. Its location at the Erie Canal’s eastern terminus on the Hudson River allowed it to easily ship bells to the Eastern Seaboard and the Midwest. This foundry is not to be confused with its close rival on the opposite riverbank, Meneely of Troy, which was established by a relative. The Meneely, West Troy foundry would later distinguish itself from its competitor by using the five-point tuning system for bells. Around the same time, however, the specifics of bell tuning were just being rediscovered by English bell founders, who delivered the first five-point tuned bells to North America in 1897, the very year that the St. John Cantius bells were installed. Although the four Meneely bells at St. John Cantius have discernible pitches, they are not as precise than would be common a short time later due to improved tuning methods.
In 1989, the new pastor, Fr. C. Frank Phillips, C.R. spearheaded the effort to restore the Meneely bells. After decades of use, their swinging apparatus were no longer functioning, rendering the bells mute. The response to Fr. Phillips’ call was swift and strong: President, Walter McNelly, of the National Security Bank of Chicago, had the bank donate $25,000 to fully fund the restoration. By the end of the year, the Verdin company restored the four Meneely bells and updated their ringing mechanisms. To preserve the bells and stabilize the church’s tower, the bells were positioned to remain stationary and are rung by means of automatic strikers on the inside of each bell, thus requiring no manual power. Their ringing schedule was also updated.
The smallest bell in our main tower, “Sine Nomine”
The bells still ring the Angelus, for special occasions, and before Mass, but now they also mark the time in 15-minute increments, turning the set into a clock chime. They rang the time from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. until 2006, when, due to a neighbor’s complaint to the City of Chicago and threat of a lawsuit, the church agreed to cease ringing the bells after 9 p.m. More recently, the bells of St. John Cantius have rung out for citywide celebrations, such as the national sports championships of the Blackhawks in 2015 and the Cubs in 2016.
J.C. Deagan Bells
The 24 tubular Deagan bells ring out melodies and hymns.
St. John Cantius complemented its Meneely bells with tubular bells one century later. In 1999, Rev. C. Frank Phillips, C.R. rallied to install a 24-bell tubular chime that he heard was located in the Laureldale Cemetery in Reading, Pennsylvania and needed a new home. Its purchase and installation were made possible by the generous donation of the late Eugene F. Dolehide, M.D.
Upon installation, the Deagan bells were blessed by the Most Reverend Joseph N. Perry, Auxiliary Bishop of Chicago. They are rung through electric action and perform harmonized melodies twice per day, at 12:20 p.m. and 8:20 p.m.; these melodies periodically change to suit the liturgical calendar. The chimes’ manual keyboard, located in the northwest tower, can be played by the parish organist. Their manufacturer, the J.C. Deagan company, was based here in Chicago, in the Ravenswood neighborhood. Although Deagan primarily manufactured percussion instruments, they also made approximately 440 tubular chimes for the American market in the early and mid-20th century.
The large strikers on the Deagan tubular bells
The Deagan tubular chime continued a long tradition of bells making music. In the 14th century, bells began ringing short melodies to notify listeners of the imminent hour strike. This “forestrike” was the precursor to the bell music we hear today made by chimes and carillons. Not long after, bells played short melodies to signal smaller divisions of the hour. Large mounted wooden wheels, which resembled a music box’s mechanism, controlled bells’ regular ringing. By the early 16th century, the bells were connected to large keyboards so that musicians could perform hymns and popular tunes alike for the edification and pleasure of the community.
Today, computers allow hundreds of tunes to be played automatically on both traditional and tubular bells. The Deagan tubular chime’s mechanism functions like that of a player piano: perforated paper rolls feed into its controller, which directs its strikers. This mechanism is a 20th-century update to the original automatic chiming mechanism from the Low Countries, which dates to the late 14th century.
Royal Eijsbouts Bells
The outdoor bell set plays harmonized melodies every hour.
In 2006, the Rev. C. Frank Phillips, C.R. acquired yet another set of bells for St. John Cantius, distinguishing it as one of the few churches—if not the only church—in the United States with three separate sets of functioning bells.
Located outdoors, on the elevator tower in the church’s northeast corner, this carillon set was blessed by the Most Reverend Joseph N. Perry, Auxiliary Bishop of Chicago, when it was installed. The bells were cast by the Royal Eijsbouts Bell Foundry in Asten, the Netherlands and installed into a carillon designed by Firma Prais of Poland. This two-octave, chromatic set of bells is high-pitched, and it plays a range of harmonized melodies 20 minutes past every hour.
The high-pitched Royal Eijsbouts bells and their magnetic strikers.
The bells play from 9:40 a.m. to 6:40 p.m. The last ring is at 8:50 p.m. The bells are not rung at 12:40 p.m. 3:40 p.m. and 7:40 p.m. due to religious services.
The bells are rung via a computer controller that uses MIDI files. There are currently hymns and other selections programmed, including “Salve Regina,” “Ave Maris Stella,” “Veni, Veni Emanuel,” “Conditor,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “Joy to the World,” “O Sacred Head,” and “Crux Fidelis.”
Bishop Joseph N. Perry christens (baptizes) the bells in July of 2006.
At the consecration of bells in 2006: Fr. C Frank Phillips, C.R., the owner of Firma Prais foundry in Poland, Deacon Bart Juncer, Bishop Joseph N. Perry
Hear the Bells
The various bells of St. John Cantius can be heard throughout the day. The optimal time to hear all three sets of bells is from noon until a few minutes past 1:40 p.m., Monday through Saturday. At noon, the Meneely clock chime rings the hour. Shortly thereafter, it rings the Angelus. At 12:15 pm the clock chime rings the quarter-hour. At 12:20 p.m., the Deagan tubular chime plays a few selections. Next, the clock chime rings the half hour. Finally, at 1:40 p.m., the Eijsbouts bell set performs a short selection.