St. Matthew’s Cathedral to Celebrate 100th Anniversary of the Bell Tower
The tower clock of St. Matthew’s Cathedral has been chiming out through Laramie longer than residents can remember. Many are unaware of the rich history behind the bells in the tower, or how long the tower clock has been striking the Westminster quarter hours and the hours of the day.
Dan Nelson knows both of these things. Nelson, who has attended the church since he moved to Laramie in 1958, says the church and its tower filled with bells are steeped in local history. Nelson says the coming weekend marks an important anniversary in the history of the bells. This Saturday, the bells will have been chiming in Laramie for 100 years.
The bells, which are considered by many to be something of a hallmark in Laramie, weren’t always part of the church, which is positioned near downtown. The tale of how they got there includes a local legend, banker and philanthropist Edward Ivinson. Nelson said Ivinson, whose philanthropy helped found Ivinson Memorial Hospital, also donated money to build the bell tower and fund the addition of the bells.
“The cathedral was built in 1892, but they didn’t have enough money to put the big tower with the steeple on it, or the back two,” Nelson said. “So in 1916, our biggest philanthropist in Laramie, Edward Ivinson - his wife had died in 1915 - gifted in his wife’s memory money to build a tower and put in 11 bells and the chiming mechanism and the mechanism for the clock that rings the hour.”
The bells first rang out over Laramie in Sept 1917. Nelson said Ivinson gifted the church $60,000, which is over a million dollars today. Nelson said the 11 bells and their mountings weigh about 15,000 pounds.
To commemorate the occasion, two special bell concerts has been arranged for this Saturday and Sunday. As part of the centennial celebration concerts, the bells will chime out a number of different songs, many of which were played when the bells first were installed. Nelson said they are going to throw in a few new songs that he thinks Laramie residents will recognize.
“Both days, particularly on Saturday, we are going do some of the songs that were done in the original programs, which I luckily found a copy of,” Nelson said. “But we are going to do ‘Ragtime Cowboy Joe,’ ‘Home on the Range,’ ‘Oh, My Darling Clementine’ and some fun things like that.”
Nelson said the bells will also play a rendition of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ as well as a song by the Beatles.
St. Matthew’s bells have had a number of concerts since they were installed. Nelson says they were also rung to mark significant moments in history. On Sept 1, 1920, Wyoming historian and suffragist Grace Raymond Hebard climbed the tower and rang the largest bell to celebrate the adoption of the 19th Amendment, which gave U.S. women the right to vote.
The bells were also rung during the Iranian Hostage Crisis, which began on Nov 4, 1979. On each day of the 444 days of the hostage crisis, the bells rang during the noon hour.
The bells also played a program of Edward Ivinson’s favorite tunes on his 92nd birthday.
Nelson said a subcommittee of the St. Matthew’s worship committee put together the program of songs and made the concerts possible. Nelson said he, Gerald 'Punch' Williamson and Di Worthington make up the subcommittee.
Williamson is responsible for the running and the upkeep of the bells at St. Matthew’s. Williamson will be giving a brief explanation of how the bells work for those who are in attendance at the church for the concerts. Williamson said the subcommittee is hoping to live stream the bells during the concert so Laramie residents can see how the bell works. Williamson said that some issues are still being worked out, but if all goes well, the live stream will be available to view on the St. Matthew’s YouTube channel.
Williamson said the concerts will be performed using both the hand-pulled method as well as using the organ to play the bells.
The concert on Saturday will be at 11 a.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m. Nelson said the concerts will last about 20 minutes each. He said residents are welcome to come to the church to listen. Residents can sit inside the church to listen and chairs will also be set out on the lawn.
“Everybody that’s been in Laramie or attended the university since 1917, those bells have been a part of what their ears hear,” Nelson said.