Harvard Bells on Their Way Back to Russia

July 9, 2008

Author: Andrea Shea

Source: WBUR


Eighteen antique bells that rang from a tower at Harvard for the past 78 years are on their way home to a monastery in Russia. WBUR's Andrea Shea has the story behind their long-awaited return.

SHEA: As tradition has it the ornate bells in the belfry at Lowell House, a dorm at Harvard, chime each Sunday for about 15 minutes. Grad student Ben Rappaport is the Head Bell Ringer and says he and the other ringers often play contemporary tunes on the enormous bronze instruments.

RAPPAPORT: One of the most popular ones, especially the past few months, has been the Harry Potter theme song.

Music: Bells ringing the Harry Potter theme song

SHEA: But the bells haven't always been popular. In fact when they were installed at Harvard in the 1930's, students who lived in Lowell House would flush huge wads of paper down the toilets, hoping to clog the system to protest the noise. Diana Eck is the current Master at Lowell House and a Professor of Religion.

ECK: For many, many years no one really knew how to ring them properly here. And it's a little bit more like Jazz than it is like playing a set of 17 bells, it requires a group of several people, it is improvisational. And when we began really hearing the Russians ring them, we knew that they were their bells.

SHEA: Eighty years ago the bells rang at the Danilov Monastery in Moscow. In the 1920's, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin lead a brutal campaign against the Russian Orthodox Church, killing monks and destroying sacred property. But the monastery's bells were saved. And in the 1930's industrialist Charles Crane purchased them from the Soviet government and gave them to Harvard. With the demise of the Soviet Union, the church began its campaign to get the bells back. Professor Eck has been working since 2003 to orchestrate the repatriation of the set.