A bell sounds in parts of Niagara Falls, Ontario, every day at noon and 6 p.m. It can be heard along Valley Way, Victoria Avenue, at the helicopter rides along the Niagara Parkway, even sometimes on Clifton Hill. “It depends on the wind,” said Father Gerard Power, the priest at St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church.
The church’s bell tower smells like greasy oil and old wood. The air is dusty, and a slight breeze travels through dormer windows on the tower walls. It takes 50 steps on a narrow staircase to get to the bell’s motors in the tower. “We’re about 50 feet closer to heaven than when we were downstairs,” said Power. It takes another 15 steps on a wood ladder – plus the ability to climb through a small, square opening – to get to the large, age-spotted bell that was made in 1895 in Baltimore, Maryland. Niagara Falls residents pitched in and purchased the bell as a gift to the church. Its inscription reads, “The gift of the people of Niagara Falls, Rev. D.T. O’Malley, rector Dec. 1, 1895.”
Contributors came from all different backgrounds and symbolized the unity of all the faiths in the Niagara Falls community, said Power.
The bell itself weighs about 4,000 pounds and measures approximately six feet wide and six feet long. It hangs nearly 100 feet off the ground.
It took a couple hundred Irish immigrants to hoist the bell to the top of the tower by a pulley. They used no machinery. Power said for about 40 to 50 years, the bell was connected to the fire station and served as a fire alarm.
Just like it called firefighters together, Power said the bell is meant to bring all people together. He said a clock is connected to the main motor that allows the bell to ring automatically every day at noon and 6 p.m. These times are a call of worship to bring people together for the Angelus prayer, a traditional Catholic prayer. The bell also rings before each mass on Sundays at 8, 9:30 and 11:30 a.m., and 7 p.m. which is also timed on the clock.
When time changes in the spring, Power said it’s easy to move the clock forward. But the fall season is a bit different. The hands on the clock only turn one way, so Power has to manually rotate the clock’s hands six days and 23 hours forward to bring the time back one hour.
“It’s a pain in the arse in the fall,” said Power. While it’s a hassle to move the clock back an hour, at least flicking the switch for weddings and funerals is easier than in the old days. Back then, someone had to pull a rope to make the bell sound. There are two switches that look like light switches, near the clock. One triggers a motor to give the bell a quick, celebrating ring, which is usually heard after a wedding ceremony. The second switch turns another motor to give the bell its solemn, drawn-out sound that can be heard before and after a funeral. Power said the bell’s motors are programmed for the wedding and funeral ring. The motors determine how long and how frequently the bell sounds when it rings. The motors are oiled a few times a year, Power said.
The day of Pope John Paul’s death, the bell sounded the funeral call for three hours in the afternoon, said Power. “Nobody in the city said a word about it,” he said.
“They all knew why.”
Power remembered, with humor, the day Pope Benedict was announced to be the next leader. He said as soon as he saw white smoke at the Vatican on television (a symbol used to announce the selection of a new Catholic Church leader), he played the triumphant wedding bell. But, he said, at least one Niagara Falls man was not so happy about the ringing bell.“He called me up complaining, ‘Why the hell is the bell ringing?’” he said. Power said he laughed in disbelief when the man said he was unaware of John Paul’s death and that a new leader had been named.
Even though he had to deal with that complaint, Power said children often ask him questions and are interested in seeing the bell. There are no scheduled tours of the tower, but Power said he can lead children and their parents up to the tower to see the bell if they’re curious. Children are the most excited when they see the bell, Power said, because of its large size. He said it’s not a good idea to visit the bell while it’s ringing because it’s so loud.
As a call to worship, Power said bells often symbolize the presence of God and are used in every religion. “It brings comfort to people,” he said. “It reminds them of celebration, and assists in their grieving.”