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Carillon bells sound beginning of Victor tenure

Monday, August 3, 2015

A familiar sound that’s been missing at Mercyhurst recently will be heard again when Michael Victor arrives on campus Aug. 3 to begin his tenure as the 12th president of Mercyhurst University. A new digital carillon will ring out the hours with the familiar Westminster Chimes and play a variety of other music.

“I have fond memories of the carillon from my years at Mercyhurst,” Victor said. “The bells add character and beauty to our already gorgeous campus, and I think it’s important that they ring again.”

When he was named Mercyhurst’s 12th president in May, Victor’s first act reflected his appreciation for the university’s history and traditions; he found a donor to replace the 20-year-old chime system that had fallen silent.

The Verdin Company of Cincinnati, Ohio, installed its Adagio Carillon at Mercyhurst. The digital system provides the traditional sound of real cast bronze bells, controlled from an easy-to-use computer touch screen. New speakers were placed atop the historic O’Neil Tower, and speakers on the Canterbury Clock will carry the sound to the center of campus.

The unit comes prepackaged with a variety of bell music, including the Westminster clock chime melody and hour strike, hymns, holiday and special occasion tunes, and general music favorites. In addition, Mercyhurst asked Verdin to program its alma mater, which will play each day at 2 p.m., Victor said.

Like its predecessors, the console was installed on the fourth floor of O’Neil Tower. It’s housed on a shelf in the corner of an office now used by Patrick Kelly, assistant professor of mathematics.  It will be operated remotely by Jeanette Britt, chief information officer, and Guy DiPietro in Information Technology.

It appears that the Sisters of Mercy originally hoped to include a bell tower when they built Mercyhurst in 1926. But the very tall tower shown in early renderings of the building had to be cut from the plans, falling victim to high costs and concern about Erie’s high winds.

Chimes did ring out at Mercyhurst in 1947, though, thanks to a gift from Mercy Sisters Mary Alice Weber and Mary Rachel Weber in memory of their parents, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph J. Weber. Speakers were installed atop the four-story O’Neil Tower, which had been added when Christ the King Chapel was built in 1933.

The Merciad student newspaper reported, “They have a range of twenty-five notes and are incorporated into the chapel pipe organ so that both may be played simultaneously. At present these chimes are hand operated, but eventually they will be regulated by an automatic clock attachment.”

The bell system was upgraded in the early 1970s and Allan Belovarac ’73 soon took responsibility for it. In those early days of coeducation, Belovarac and several other men lived on the top floor of the O’Neil Tower where the bell system was located.

He recalls being fascinated by the mechanical system, also supplied by Verdin, which resembled a grandfather clock and used cartridges that looked like oversize 8-track tapes. “It really didn’t take much effort but it added a lot to the atmosphere on campus,” he said.

Belovarac worked at Mercyhurst in a variety of positions for more than four decades after his graduation, and he kept operating the bells through all those years. He once even had an office on the fourth floor of the O’Neil Tower when the history department was housed there.

In the early 1990s the bell system was upgraded again to take advantage of evolving computer technology and the older, but still functioning, mechanical system was moved to Mercyhurst’s North East campus. It’s still heard on graduation day each year.

Belovarac began programming musical selections at Erie using small chips that looked like today’s memory cards. He accumulated quite a collection of chips, including Marian songs, music for Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter, and even folk songs from Poland and Croatia.

After 20+ years, the Erie system began showing its age. It quit working altogether a year or so before Belovarac retired in 2014, leaving the campus unnaturally quiet for the past two years.

Belovarac was delighted to learn the bells would ring again. He added that he’d have happily come back to campus to run the system if his service had been needed.