The Bells Will Ring Again

From the Winter 2014 St. Lawrence Magazine

By Ryan Deuel

It happened last fall during Family Weekend, one of St. Lawrence University’s most time-honored traditions. The campus was brimming with activity, weather unseasonably warm and sunny, allowing students and their families to bask in the brilliant fall colors adorning campus.

Fireworks signaled the culmination of another successful weekend on the evening of Saturday, Oct. 5. As the weekend activity wound down, the campus was preparing for a much-deserved rest on Sunday.  

It was not to be. Shortly after 5 a.m. the next morning, Sunday, Oct. 6, University Safety and Security Dispatcher Jason Coleman spotted a bright light on the roof of the Gunnison Memorial Chapel. Campus officers Thomas Stafford, Bryan Zimmer and Sean LaSala all responded. As one of them climbed the narrow, dark stairs leading to the chapel’s steeple, the smoke became thicker, the air hotter.

It became clear that the chapel was on fire.

Assistant Director of Safety and Security Roxanne Cliff placed the call to the Canton Fire Department at 5:07 a.m. Within four minutes, emergency crews arrived on the scene to battle a growing inferno that was threatening to destroy a North Country beacon and an icon of the St. Lawrence campus, and would have wrought much greater damage had the response been even a handful of minutes slower, according to fire officials.

Battling the Fire

While flames shot spectacularly out of the steeple and bell tower for nearly two hours, the fire miraculously was contained mostly to the tower’s roof and the chapel’s steeple and spire.

Firefighters from Canton as well as neighboring Potsdam, Gouverneur, Rensselaer Falls and Morley continued to douse the steeple and spire with water, as gusty winds fanned the lingering flames like a huge bellows. Concerned that the water could cause additional damage to the interior of the chapel, crews decided instead to saturate the spire in a soap-like fire retardant, hoping to finally smother the remaining flames.

While hopes were high Sunday afternoon and evening that the worst was finally over, it later became clear that the fire had not yet finished its work.

Crews were called back to the scene early Monday morning, as the wind rose and flames reappeared in the spire — the highest portion of the steeple, coated in historically weathered green cooper and topped with St. Lawrence’s famed rooster weathervane. Stiff gusts continued to excite the flames until finally, at just after 5 a.m. — almost exactly 24 hours after the fire had first been discovered — the spire broke, toppled from the steeple in a shower of sparks and plummeted to the ground in front of the main chapel entrance, in a final and dramatic ending. It damaged a few slate shingles, a rain gutter and an ornamental tree alongside the chapel’s front wall as it crashed.

Throughout the whole ordeal, no one was injured. But there was no question that the chapel had been badly damaged. In the days that followed, it became clear that even more damage than originally thought had been caused by the fire and the attempts to extinguish it.

Early reports indicated that the Bacheller Memorial Chime bells, perched high in the bell tower since 1926, had fallen and were resting on a concrete pad below. Thankfully, further inspection revealed that the 10 bells were still fastened to their original wooden framework.

While the sanctuary and chaplains’ offices inside the chapel had been saved from the fire, smoke and water had penetrated nearly every portion of the building. Everything from the wooden floors and pews to hymnals and robes would eventually need to be removed for cleaning and preservation. Experts would need to be called upon to further examine the Estey pipe organ, the chime console and the bells themselves. And while badly damaged by smoke and the spire’s fall, hope remained that at least some portions of the spire’s original copper could be restored.

Fire officials determined that the fire was electrical in origin, starting in a conduit close to the wooden roof of the bell tower.

Spirituality of St. Lawrence

St. Lawrence University may not be known as a religious institution. In fact, it shed its last vestiges of formal religious affiliation with the Unitarian-Universalist Church when the Theological School closed in 1965. Yet, it continues to be a very spiritual place for many students, alumni, faculty, staff and members of the community.

The chapel hosts many of St. Lawrence’s most important ceremonies, such as Convocation, Moving-Up Day and the annual Candlelight Service. Regular concerts, such as “Noon in the Chapel,” organ recitals and various musical performances take place there. Of course, the chapel is also home to religious services, including regular Catholic masses, gospel worship, multi-faith celebrations such as the Baccalaureate Service at Commencement, and weddings.

Bell-Ringing Tradition Halted

The chapel is also the home of the Bacheller Memorial Chime, perhaps the most recognizable feature of the chapel to many. The chime has been played by St. Lawrence bell ringers since 1926, a tradition that was recently honored by Traditional Arts in Upstate New York (see page 22). And for as long as anyone can remember, bell-ringers have been climbing the bell tower’s 59 steps to play the Bacheller Chime for the campus and the town daily at 5 p.m. when classes are in session.

Following the fire, several binders of music were recovered. Amazingly, only one suffered any serious damage. Even that one, though, could be salvaged. Later that same week, bell-ringers Janel Smith ’99, Cody Witherell ’11 and Julie Collins ’14 met for dinner at Chaplain Kathleen Buckley’s house and went to work.

“We’re still repairing the music,” Witherell said in mid-November. “Water and soot had ‘glued’ some of the sheets together, and we’ve had to peel them apart very carefully. We are planning on digitizing the music, and then probably donating the originals to the University archives for safe-keeping. Some of the music is original, from the very first chimers.”

“I was surprised that so much of the music was OK and could still be played,” Smith said. “The one binder that was burned contained ‘Chapel Bells.’ We put that and the Christmas music back together. It felt good to do, and it made us all feel a lot better.”

Tradition

Gabrielle “Gabby” Schreffler ’16 may be in only her second year at St. Lawrence, but already she has formed a deep connection to the campus and its traditions.

A crew team member, Gabby was rowing on Sunday morning and missed the fire. When she later walked by the chapel and saw the damage, she felt compelled to send a message on Twitter: “So sad to walk by the bell tower this morning.”

“It’s a huge part of the history here, and it seemed like sharing the news was the right thing to do,” Gabby said later. “The next day after breakfast I was walking to the library when I saw the orange fencing they’d put up around the chapel. That’s when it really hit me what had happened.”

Gabby had grown fond of hearing the chapel bells ring each day at 5 p.m. And while electronic recordings broadcast from near Richardson Hall have continued to honor the bell ringers, the bells and their music, to Gabby it’s just not the same.

“It’s something I looked forward to hearing every day,” she said in early November. “It’s something unique that seems to bring the campus together. Everyone is one big family here. It’s sad now that we don’t get to hear them anymore.”

In fact, the chapel will be fully restored and the Bacheller Memorial Chime will once again “ring out the ending of each day,” to borrow a lyric from “Chapel Bells,” one of St. Lawrence’s beloved college songs.

University officials worked with insurers and specialists through December to inspect the damage and determine the best plan for restoring the chapel. Workers using a large crane removed the remaining damaged portion of the steeple in November, as clean-up crews continued to work and to assess what could be salvaged inside the chapel. The University is saving the damaged remnants of the steeple and spire and hopes to repair as many sections as possible using original materials.

“The artistry and distinctive craftsmanship required for this project means we will need ample time, undoubtedly the rest of the academic year, to ensure the highest quality work,” President William L. Fox ’75 said in his monthly letter to the University community in November.

When the chapel is restored and the bells are ready to be rung again, Janel Smith plans to be there and to ring. The song she’d like to play?

A Laurentian Singers favorite, “Old St. Lawrence, Here’s to You.”

Ryan Deuel is St. Lawrence’s director of media relations.