By Eric Martin
A new 27-bell carillon for St Francis Xavier Cathedral Geraldton were blessed on Easter Sunday 21 April by Bishop Michael Morrissey.
The carillion, called The Geraldton Bells, weigh a total of 10 tonnes and are the finishing touches to the restoration of the Geraldton Cathedral.
The four-year restoration has involved major repairs, dramatic lighting, the entombment of a former bishop in a glass vault in the Cathedral’s floor, and now the casting of the largest set of church bells installed in Australia.
The largest bell of the carillon, weighing in at 1059kg, and donated by Mr Laith Reynolds, was named “Big” Peter, in remembrance of the original “Big” Peter bell that was obtained by Monsignor Hawes and installed in the Cathedral on 23 August 1923.
As part of the major conservation and refurbishment of the Cathedral, which begun in 2015, it was proposed to install a full carillon of 27 bells in the Cathedral’s western towers, which would be suspended from two frames constructed within both of the Western towers.
“It will take another month to get them installed and operational, at which time we will have an official dedication, blessing and first ringing,” said Father Robert Cross, Director of Heritage for the Diocese of Geraldton.
“We’re just waiting now on a review of the architectural steel components that are being added to the towers,” he explained.
“The steel components were designed in England and there have been many emails going back and forwards as we make sure that everything is just right – I don’t want the towers coming down!”
The foundation of the carillon is a set of eight bells that have been obtained from the parish church of Saints Peter and Paul in Godalming, England.
The 19 new bells were manufactured by John Taylor Bells, Loughborough, England, to make the full carillon.
Sts Peter & Paul Church in England is an ancient building dating back to the ninth-century during the Anglo-Saxon and early Norman periods.
The church is a major tourist attraction and the location of numerous events and weddings as it is one of the most picturesque parishes in the South East of England.
A complete set of new bells were cast for St Peter and St Paul’s in 2017 (also by John Taylor Bells, England), freeing the original eight bells for relocation to their new home in one of the remotest regions of the colony – Geraldton, WA.
Combining the 12th century bells of St Peter and St Paul’s with the bells of the modern casting has resulted in a unique carillon, a one of its kind for WA.
All of the bells have been tuned to modern concert pitch, including the Godalming Bells, to ensure the purity of the carillon’s chime.
“You can still see the notches on the base of some of the older bells, which was the way that they used to tune them,” Fr Cross explained.
“One of the Godalming bells still has the inscription from the 1700s from when it was last tuned.”
The 24 cwt eight bells from Godalming were tuned down to form the lower tones and semi-tones.
Work casting, fettling and tuning the 19 new bells has been completed, as has the casting of the arched headstocks for the swinging bells, and these were fitted with gudgeons and bearings before being dispatched for Australia.
The carillon made the 47-day journey by sea aboard the container ship OOCL Scandinavia and was caught in a cyclone before making landfall in Australia.
Though the bells represent a time in church history many centuries before electricity and the advent of automation, the Geraldton carillon will be joining the 21st-century with the fitting of ‘full IT control’ and can be played from anywhere in the world by logging in to the new system.
Electro-Magnetic Chiming Hammers can be fitted to bells hung for chiming or change ringing, and are designed not interfere with the normal manual chiming or ringing of the bells by hand.
Once a system is fitted, it can be pre-programmed for up to a whole year if required. Tunes, both secular and sacred can be programmed, together with single bells to mark the hours or the Angelus, or English change ringing if the tower has sufficient bells.
Not surprisingly, the carillon and operating system will be the only one of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere and it is the first two Octave carillon with three slow swinging bells in the world.
The new carillon are not the first bells to grace the Geraldton Cathedral but they will be the first ringing to be heard in the diocese since the end of World War II.
In August 1923 a large 1.75-ton steel, tin and copper bell called “Great Peter” was installed in SFX Cathedral, Geraldton, but in 1931 this bell sustained an 18-inch crack on one side requiring repairs.
A second crack appeared just after the close of World War II and this damage was never to be repaired – the great bell was removed from the bell tower and remained for many years behind the Fatima Grotto adjacent to the Presentation Sisters Convent.
The new carillon will ring daily at midday and 6pm, as well as striking the hour between 8am and 6pm for the Diocese of Geraldton.
According to Fr Cross, the bells are going to add a new and wonderful dimension to the soundscape of Geraldton.