The Mighty Carillon of the Knights Tower
Rising high above the northeast sector of the nation’s capital as a defining feature of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the Knights' Tower stands in testament to the devotion American Catholics hold for the Blessed Mother. Funded by a $1 million grant from the Knights of Columbus, the 329-foot tower was completed in time for the dedication of “America’s Catholic Church” Nov. 20, 1959.
Almost four years later, with an additional donation from the Knights of Columbus, the 56-bell carillon was finished on two levels of the Knights Tower. The inauguration concert of the bells was held on Sept. 8, 1963, with Arthur L. Bigelow, bellmaster of Princeton University, playing such familiar tunes as Exsultate Deo, Faith of Our Fathers, Ave Maria and Tantum Ergo.
The 56 bells, which vary in weight from 7,200 lbs. to a mere 21 lbs., were manufactured under a joint contract by two European companies, one in France and the other in Holland. Following ancient tradition, some of the bells are named and inscribed with words that the bell is given to “sing.” Appropriately, Mary is the name of the largest bell, or bourdon, and sounds the note B-flat. The inscription on the bells reads: “MARY IS MY NAME / MARY IS MY SOUND / BELOVED MOTHER / QUEEN OF HEAVEN AND EARTH / QUEEN OF THIS DEAR LAND / FOR KNIGHTS TO GOD AND COUNTRY BOUND / AND ALL WHO HEAR MY VOICE / I SING THE PRAISES OF GOD.” The inscription includes an explanation how the bell got its name: “Supreme Knight Luke E. Hart, under whose leadership both the carillon and tower were donated to the Shrine, requested that the largest bell be dedicated to the Blessed Mother, Queen of Heaven and Patroness of the United States, thereby expressing the love and devotion of the Knights to her.”
The close association of the Knights of Columbus with the carillon is recorded in the bells themselves, a number of which have been named. The St. Christopher Bell honors Christopher Columbus, Discoverer of the Americas and patron of the Knights of Columbus. The St. Michael Bell honors Father Michael J. McGivney, Founder of the Order. The St. James Bell honors three supreme knights: James T. Mullen (1882-1886), James E. Hayes (1897-1898) and James A. Flaherty (1909-1927). The St. John Bell also honors three supreme knights: John J. Phelan (1886-1897), John J. Cone (1898-1899) and John E. Swift (1945-1953). The St. Edward Bell honors Supreme Knight Edward L. Hearn (1899-1909). The St. Martin of Tours Bell honors Supreme Knight Martin Carmody (1927-1939). The St. Francis of Assisi Bell honors Supreme Knight Francis P. Matthews (1939-1945). The St. Luke Bell honors Supreme Knight Luke E. Hart (1953-1964).
Bells have also been named for St. Virgil in honor of Supreme Knight Virgil C. Dechant (1977-2000) and, most recently, for St. Karol in honor of Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson (2000-present), as part of the ceremonies for the dedication of the Knights of Columbus Incarnation Dome on Nov. 17, 2007.
The bells are an intimate and intricate part of the daily life of the National Shrine, set off by short electronic prompts every 15 minutes and marking each hour with a longer song. The bells may be sounded by hand by a carillonneur pounding the wooden baton keys of the unique console that prompts the striking of the bells — a skilled task that requires a good deal of strength. The Shrine’s carillonneur since 1964 has been Dr. Robert B. Grogan.
With thanks to Dr Geraldine Rohling, Archivist and Curator of the Basilica of the National Shrine, whose research contributed to this account.