1. Heaven's Bells
Geoffrey Vendeville, Brandon Johnston and Andy Fidel

Heaven's Bells

The bells at St. Joseph's Oratory have a little-known French connection.

Heaven's Bells
The bells at St. Joseph's Oratory have a little-known French connection.
Heaven's Bells

The 11-ton bells of St. Joseph’s oratory are hidden in plain earshot.

Their peal 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 never knew there was someone who played them with an instrument,” said Andrée-Anne Doane, of the bells she heard ringing from the oratory when she visited as a girl.  Doane is now St. Joseph Oratory's fourth titular carillonneur. “For many people it’s something that isn’t very well-known, the carillon.” 

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. Recently, three-and-a-half year-old Tamara Snir and her parents met Doane on a tour of the oratory.  Doane taught Tamara Snir 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." 

A carillon lesson

St. Joseph’s carillon is the only one in Quebec and one of 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 tower—like the 55-ton carillon in Parliament’s Peace Tower in Ottawa. Instead, its 56 bells sit above the green copper roof of a small, anonymous concrete building separate from the basilica, beside a cafeteria and a boutique selling souvenir postcards and key chains of saints.

St. Joseph’s esoteric 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," said Pierre Paccard, whose father sold the bells to the oratory, "but the project was abandoned for technical reasons. I remember my father telling me so after 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, while in France, obtained the bells on loan for the oratory on the occasion of its 50th anniversary.

Hundreds of faithful packed the basilica on February 27, 1955 to attend the blessing of the bells by Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger, Archbishop of Montreal. "It is precisely because their voice will announce the passage of God among his people that the bells must be sanctified in a traditional ceremony," Cardinal Léger announced.

The blessing of the bells on February 27, 1955 was no small affair. All photos courtesy of St. Joseph's Oratory.
A young girl strikes a bell during the ceremony.
The bells arrived in Montreal on loan, but the oratory was able to keep them thanks to donations.
The largest bell, or "bourdon," was christened Alfred-André.
The Paccard foundry exported over 3,000 bells to Quebec.

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 later.

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 been tolling 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. When she moved to Montreal in 1976 to study medicine at McGill University, she was 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 compositional 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 and retired in 2008. 



In holiday parades, Émilien Allard used to enterain crowds playing a mobile carillon like this one. Photo courtesy of BAnQ Vieux-Montréal

A clarinetist in the Canadian Air Force band during the Second World War, Allard went on to study at the Royal Carillon School in Malines (Mechelen), Belgium from 1946 to 1948 and then studied composition in Paris under the prominent French composer Olivier Messiaen.

When he returned to his hometown of Grand-Mère, which has since merged into Shawinigan, Que. he received a hero’s welcome, but didn’t find work as carillonneur at the oratory until 1956. In Montreal, Allard was something of a celebrity.

“The whole town knows him,” said the former Montreal weekly, Le Petit Journal.  “In holiday parades, he knows how to make the crowd sing and dance around a 11-bell carillon towed by a truck.

"On the evening of St-Jean Baptiste, one woman approached the artist offering him money to play her favourite song. But Émilien Allard, who had been playing for hours, showed the stunned woman his bloody fists.”

In February 1974, the ailing 59 year-old Allard had his eyes on becoming parliament carillonneur and wrote the president of the Guild of Carillonneurs in North America for a letter of recommendation. Worried that he would be passed over for the job because of his illness, Allard tried hard to impress the then-Dominion Carillonneur, Robert Donnell, at a recital in the Peace Tower. “He will hear a flood of notes as he never heard in his life,” Allard wrote.

Carillon virtuoso

Carillon virtuoso

Émilien Allard was considered one of the best carillonneurs of his time. Photo Bibliothèque et archives nationales du Québec

Allard was finally named Dominion Carillonneur of Canada in 1975, but wouldn’t stay in the job long; he died of cancer on Nov. 18, 1976.

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

Émilien Allard's Toccatina played by Andrée-Anne Doane

Words by Geoffrey Vendeville. Videos and photos by Andy Fidel and Brandon Johnston.