Carillonneur John Wright Harvey.
Carillonneur John Wright Harvey playing the Archbishop John Ireland Memorial Carillon in Albertus Magnus Hall, Sept. 17, 1967.

Tales from the Archives: The Bells of St. Thomas

As one walks through the lower quad, the chime of the bells can be heard on the hour and the half-hour. The resonating sound can make one reflect on the bells that have echoed through the history of the University of St. Thomas.

Old Administration Building.
Old Administration Building, 1886.

Behind the old Administration Building stood the school’s first bell mounted on a wooden frame. Tasked with the responsibility of ringing it multiple times a day was Danny Donahue, the school’s devoted caretaker. Donahue’s obituary stated that “the task he best loved was the ringing of the Angelus and he performed it with a devout zeal and a humility that was beautiful to see. Morning, noon, and night, year after year, at the ringing of the bell he stood with bared head while he repeated reverently in his half audible whisper, the words of the Angel to Mary.”

In 1931, following the demolition of the old Administration Building, the bell was relocated adjacent to the infirmary, presently known as Mennith Hall. As a contribution to the war effort, the bell was offered to a scrap drive in 1942. According to legend, Monsignor James Moynihan, the president at the time, contributed the bell not only out of patriotic sentiments but also to address the issue of students frequently ringing it at inconvenient hours during the night.

Infirmary building in 1931.
The infirmary with the bell to the right , ca. 1931.

Alumni might fondly remember the diverse bell signals in classroom buildings, indicating the commencement and conclusion of classes. However, these systems were not always seamlessly coordinated. Students navigating from one building to another often found themselves caught off guard by conflicting bell schedules, leading to occasional tardiness. A master clock installed in 1965 brought about a significant improvement, synchronizing all the clocks and bells for Albertus Magnus Hall (now the John R. Roach Center for the Liberal Arts) and Aquinas Hall, eradicating the excuse for being late to class.

Rocca-Rutman Tower of the O’Shaughnessy-Frey Library.
The O’Shaughnessy-Frey Library with purple lights in the bell tower during a warm spring evening on the St. Paul campus on April 18, 2020. (Mark Brown/University of St. Thomas)

On Sept. 17, 1967, St. Thomas celebrated the dedication of the Archbishop John Ireland Memorial Carillon, a generous gift from Father Carl Renz, a proud 1913 graduate. This 37-bell carillon, housed in the bell tower of Albertus Magnus Hall, could be played manually, or programmed to produce various musical selections automatically. An electronic amplifier carried the harmonious sounds of the carillon throughout the campus. The instrument was played for various campus events including playing “The Star Spangled Banner” before many football games. Several of the college’s music students learned to play the carillon before it was retired in the 1980s.

The construction of the addition to the O’Shaughnessy-Frey Library in 1991 brought a replacement carillon. Unlike its predecessor, this carillon is entirely virtual, emanating from a computerized sound system equipped with speakers and an amplifier. Since at least 2003, Dan Strojny, the associate director of network and IT operations, has maintained the system, ensuring the continued resonance of St. Thomas’ timeless bell tradition.