Historic bell granted new life at Memorial Church

April 10, 2017
The historic Memorial Church Bell on display at the church

By Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications

Gregory Curci can look at a piece of cast metal and read the craftsman’s skill like an archeologist brushing away the sand from a long-forgotten artifact. Deep in the lines and imperfections of a piece of solid iron weighing thousands of pounds, he sees the hands of the maker.

“You can see what almost look like brush marks, it’s like they dug the mold out of the sand,” said Curci, running his hand across the 1,500-pound yoke of the bell that once hung in the spire of the Memorial Church. “Someone put every one of these brush strokes in this casting. A modern casting would look like it came out of a machine. This looks like someone made it by hand and sculpted it out of clay.”

Boston artist Gregory Curci was given the task of restoring and preserving a piece of Harvard history that weighs in at nearly 4 tons and was created in London in 1926, the same year Queen Elizabeth II was born. The bell that once called students to Morning Prayers each morning, to classes, and rang across the yard to mark occasions of celebration and sorrow, is now on display on the west portico of the Memorial Church following an extensive restoration.

Boston Artist Gregory Curci

Boston Artist Gregory Cruci in his Winthrop shop. Photos by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications

The bell was dedicated at a ceremony following Morning Prayers Friday, April 21, as part of a weekend of events celebrating the reopening of the church following an eight-month renovation project. Jonathan L. Walton, The Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, said bells have called Harvard students to classes, prayer and the festival rites of Commencement since 1643, and is an important piece of history and tradition at the University.

“Across hamlets, villages, and towns, the church bell has traditionally served as a way to gather the community and routinize the practice of prayer.  This is the case at Harvard,” he said. “It calls us together each day for Morning Prayers, and tolls in memory of those whose voices have been hushed, to cite President Lowell.  But it also routinizes life at Harvard. The Memorial Church bell provides the ritual soundtrack for life at Harvard."

The bronze bell was cast in 1926 by the Taylor Bell Foundry in Loughborough, England. The company is still in operation and is the largest bell foundry in the world. Former Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell donated the bell to the University to honor students who died in World War I.  An inscription on the casting reads, “In memory of the voices that are hushed.”

Inscription on the Memorial Church Bell

The inscription on the bell honors Harvard students killed in World War I.

The bell hung in the church belfry for nearly 80 years before the bronze cracked in 2011 shortly after crews replaced a damaged clapper. The break was the final chapter in a series of clapper-mishaps. In 1990, it broke free and crashed onto the steeple below the belfry. In the 1970s, the clapper came loose and reportedly landed on the steps of Widener Library.

In 2011, University officials determined the bell could not be repaired. For three years, a recorded bell over a loud speaker in the belfry rang the hour and called the Harvard community to services until it was replaced by an exact copy of the original bell.

“The electronic bell was a poor substitute for the real thing sonically ­– a fake overtone-less sound that contained none of the rich splendor of the original,” said Edward Elwyn Jones, the Gund University Organist and Choirmaster in the Memorial Church. “But, more importantly, symbolically, the Memorial Church bell is an aural reminder of the sacrifice of so many of Harvard's children—it is good to have a real bell memorializing them once again.”

Memorial Church Bell during restoration

The bell sets in Curci's shop during the restoriation.

In the fall, the bell was pulled from storage and delivered to Curci’s studio in Winthrop. A crane lowered the crate into his backyard. The bell and yoke weigh in at more than 7,000 pounds, nearly 4 tons. When Curci opened the crate, he saw a distressed piece of history, blackened by age and the elements.

“The bell itself was covered in paint dripped on from the painting the bell tower, and the pigeons did their own painting,” he said. “It was just covered in mess.”

The restoration began with a power wash and then a sand-blasting process using glass beads shot out of a nozzle at high velocity to remove eight decades of grime. Curci then drilled a hole in the bronze above the two-foot-long fracture that creeps up from the rim of the bell to halt the progress of the crack. He also removed the yoke, a solid piece of cast iron, to reset the bearings and give a fresh paint job.

Curci is well acquainted with Harvard and restoring objects and pieces of art made of metal. He restored an Alexander Calder sculpture called “Onion” outside the Pusey Library and rebuilt the sundial in the garden at Dunster House. The bell, he said, is a special project because of the size and its age.

“The thing I’m really enjoying about this is seeing the craftsmen that created this bell,” Curci said. “At the time, the technology that went into making the bells was state-of-the-art.”

Boston Artist Gregory Curci works on the bell's bearing assembly

Curci works on the bell's bearing assembly in his shop.

The bell was finished off with a chemical process that protects the metal and gives it a bronze patina. It was delivered to the church in late January just as the church was reopening after the seven-month renovation.  The bell is now on display at the top of a new handicap-accessible ramp constructed as part of the construction project.

Curci said he is very proud of his work on the bell and that it should keep its beautiful color for many years.

“Musicians probably feel this way and artists always feel this way,” he said. “You have this opportunity to create these beautiful things and people provide you a livelihood for it. When I’m creating something all of the sudden it is there and it has its own life and that is really just a fun feeling.”

Midshipman Mike Murray '17, takes a moment to honor the bell cast in 1926 to honor those in the Harvard community who sacrificed their lives in World War I.

Midshipman Mike Murray '17, takes a moment to honor the bell cast in 1926 to honor those in the Harvard community who sacrificed their lives in World War I.

The church is hosting several reopening events next week. Reopening festivities on Sunday, April 23 from 9:30 a.m.- 2:00 p.m. will include a Faith & Life Forum presentation by the project design team, the unveiling of a newly commissioned work from artist Janet McKenzie, a reception, film screenings and more.