For the 31st consecutive year, a joyous peal of bells will ring throughout Cambridge on Commencement Day.
In celebration of the city of Cambridge and of the country’s oldest university — and in a bow to the past, when bells of varying tones summoned people from sleep to prayer, work, or study — sound will fill Harvard Square and the surrounding area when a number of Schools and neighboring churches and institutions ring their bells at the conclusion of Harvard’s 368th Commencement Exercises.
The ringing will begin at 11:45 a.m., just after the sheriff of Middlesex County declares the Commencement Exercises adjourned, and will continue for approximately 15 minutes.
The deep-toned bell in the Memorial Church tower, for years the only one to acknowledge Commencement, will be joined by bells cast to replace the original 17-bell Russian zvon of Lowell House, which was returned to the Danilov Monastery near Moscow in 2008; by the bells of the Business School and the Divinity School; the historic 13-bell “Harvard Chime” of Christ Church Cambridge; and the bells of the Church of the New Jerusalem, First Church Congregational, First Parish Unitarian Universalist, First Baptist Church, St. Paul Roman Catholic Church, St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, University Lutheran Church, Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church, and St. Anthony’s.
Bells were already in use at Harvard in 1643 when the missionary pamphlet “New England’s First Fruits,” published in London that year, set forth some College rules: “Every Schollar shall be present in his tutor’s chambers at the 7th houre in the morning[,] immediately after the sound of the bell … opening the Scripture and prayer.”
Three of the 15 bells known to have been in use in Massachusetts before 1680 were hung within the precincts of the present Yard, including the original College bell and the bell of the First Parish Church.
Of the churches participating in today’s joyful ringing one, the First Parish, originally built in 1632 near the corner of Dunster and Mount Auburn streets, has links with Harvard that date from the University’s foundation: The College had use of the church’s bell, Harvard’s first Commencement was held in the church’s meetinghouse, and one of the chief reasons for selecting Cambridge as the site of the College was the proximity of this church and its minister, the Rev. Thomas Shepard, a clergyman of “marked ability and piety,” according to early Harvard records.
Christ Church Cambridge is the oldest church in the area, and it houses the “Harvard Chime,” bells cast in anticipation of the church’s 1861 centennial. Richard Henry Dana Jr., author of “Two Years Before the Mast,” and two fellow alumni arranged for the chime’s creation, and it was first rung on Easter Sunday, 1860. Each of its 13 bells bears a portion of the hymn “Gloria in Excelsis.”
Historian Samuel Batchelder, clerk of Christ Church and an 1893 Harvard alumnus, wrote of the chime, “From the outset the bells were considered as a common object of interest and enjoyment for the whole city, and their intimate connection with the University made it an expressed part of their purpose that they should be rung, not alone on church days, but also on all festivals and special occasions of the college.”
As a thoughtful student of bells wrote in 1939, “… church bells, whether they sound in a tinkling fashion the end of the first watch in the dead of night, announce the matins a few hours later, or intone the vespers or angelus, have a peculiar fascination. Chimes affect the heartstrings …”