Nearly 80 years after they were rescued by plumbing magnate Charles R. Crane, the Lowell House bells are returning to their original home in the Danilov Monastery in Moscow.
Crane bought the bells for the cost of the 26 tons of bronze of which they were made. Ranging in size from the 13-ton Bell of Mother Earth to a 22-pound mini-bell, the set of 18 bells, or zvon, would have been melted down as part of Josef Stalin’s campaign to destroy the Russian Orthodox Church. Crane donated the bells to Harvard, where they arrived in the fall of 1930.
Following years of negotiations, Harvard and representatives of the monastery reached an agreement in which the bells would be returned to Russia and replaced by a new set cast by the Vera foundry in the Voronezh region of southwestern Russia. On July 24, a delegation from Harvard participated in a ceremony at the monastery in which the new bells were blessed by Patriarch Alexey II, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, before traveling to their future home in Cambridge, Mass.
“In Russia, this was a very visible project. Hundreds of people came to see the bells and the event was on the news all over the country,” said Lowell House co-Master Diana Eck, who spoke at the ceremony.
Eck told her Russian audience that Harvard would be sad to see the bells leave Harvard, but she looked forward to a continuing relationship between Lowell House and the Danilov Monastery.
“We felt the link between Danilov and Lowell House was worth preserving,” she said. “It creates an opportunity for future musicological and cultural exchanges.”
In a sense, those exchanges have already begun. As part of the process of planning for the repatriation of the bells, representatives from Harvard and Danilov have been getting to know one another through a series of visits over the past year.
Last summer, Eck; project manager Peter Riley; associate provost for arts and culture Sean Buffington, who served as project director; and Timothy Colton, the Morris and Anna Feldberg Professor of Government and Russian Studies, traveled to Russia to visit bell foundries and learn about the art and science of bell casting. They chose the Vera foundry because it was the only one able to cast bells the size of the 13-ton Bell of Mother Earth, the largest of the 17 bells that occupy the Lowell House tower.
What the group found was a culture in the midst of a bell-ringing and bell-making revival, activities that were suppressed in Russia until the 1980s, when laws against the practice of religion began to ease.
“The bell business is booming in Russia,” Eck said.
The Vera foundry, for example, supplies bells not only to Russian churches but also to Orthodox churches throughout the United States and Canada. The Russian bell industry has achieved this level of productivity despite of having to rediscover the techniques of traditional bell casting, which had been all but lost during the Soviet era.
In order to make accurate reproductions of the Lowell House bells, Valery Anisimov, director of the Vera foundry, came to Harvard with a team of artisans in February 2007 to make molds of the surface decorations, inscriptions, and bas-relief images of the Lowell bells. At the Vera foundry, the bells were reproduced in wax, then clay molds were created from the wax models, and finally the bells were cast in bronze.
In March, the Harvard group returned to Russia to visit the foundry and sign a final agreement with the monastery. The group traveled to Moscow again in May to inspect the finished bells and returned again in July for the blessing ceremony. The event was held outdoors on the grounds of the monastery and featured speeches by the Russian minister of culture, the mayor of Moscow, and by Viktor Vekselberg, an industrialist and founder of the Link of Times Foundation, dedicated to repatriating Russian art treasures. Vekselberg, one of the world’s richest men, paid for the casting and transportation of the bells.
After being blessed at the monastery, the bells traveled to the port of St. Petersburg where they were placed on a ship bound for Boston. They are expected to arrive by late summer.
The bells won’t be hoisted into the Lowell bell tower until next summer, however. The tower must first undergo repairs and alterations, and, of course, the old bells must be removed.
One exception to this schedule is the Russian bell that hangs in the tower of the Harvard Business School’s Baker Library, the only one of the original 18 that did not go to Lowell House. That bell was replaced Wednesday (Aug. 15). Its design commemorates the Business School’s 2008 centennial year.
To mark the departure of the old bells and the installation of the new, Eck is planning a bell festival and symposium scheduled for June 1 and 2, 2008. There will be lectures and demonstrations on bell ringing, bell casting, the role of Charles R. Crane in acquiring the Lowell bells, and many other events.
After being rung at Commencement for the last time, the old bells will be shipped to Russia, and the new set will be taken out of storage and hung in the empty tower.
“Then I think we’ll have another ceremony,” said Eck.