Washington’s Bells: The Knights’ Tower

From high above the city (329 ft. at the pinnacle), the bells of The Knight’s Tower at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception call the faithful to prayer and announce significant events in the life of the church. The tower is an impressive structure – taller than the campanile of the Basilica of St. Mark in Venice (at 325 ft.) and the Leaning Tower of Pisa (at 188 ft.), but shy of the 555-ft. Washington Monument (of course, given the elevation of terrain in northeast Washington, it is nearly the monument’s equal). 

To construct this imposing tower, the Basilica was granted a special waiver to restrictions set by the District’s 1910 Height of Buildings Act. It is composed of sheer limestone walls rising 272 ft. from the ground, capped by a 37-ft. pyramidal spire, and crowned with a 20-ft. gilded cross. Although it was designed in 1920 to stand on the southeast corner of the Basilica, it moved to its current location on the southwest corner in 1928 (after briefly considering the northeast corner in 1926). One of the mitigating factors in the tower’s placement was the as-yet-to-be-decided location of the Lourdes Chapel, which is on the west transept of the crypt level, next to the Our Mother of Africa Chapel.

What’s in a name?

Of course, the cost of the enormous structure, adorning the largest Catholic church in North America, was not insignificant. Having weathered the Great Depression, World War II, and the Korean War, the Basilica was at a loss to cover the financial burden of construction. Cue the Knights of Columbus. On Sunday, March 31, 1957, Supreme Knight Luke E. Hart pledged the necessary funds to build the campanile – and thus The Knights' Tower was named.

Supreme Knight Luke Hart presents Most Reverend Patrick O’Boyle, Archbishop of Washington, a check for construction of the campanile. Image credit: Knights of Columbus.

It was decided from the beginning that this exceptional campanile would be dedicated to the celebration of the Christian faith through music and would house a precision instrument. Neither an observation platform nor public access to the tower were accommodated in the original plans.

Let it ring.

But what good is a glorious tower without bells? From the campanile’s dedication in 1959 until 1963, the tower was silent. It wasn’t until a subsequent gift from the Knights of Columbus that the purchase of a 56-bell carillon could be made. Under the supervision of Eugene F. Kennedy, Jr. (1904-1986), the Basilica’s active architect, in consultation with Arthur L. Bigelow (1909-1967), bellmaster and professor at Princeton University, the number and size of bells were decided. 

The contract to cast such a set (a dream to any foundry) fell jointly to the Foundries of Les Fils De Georges Paccard of Annecy-Le-Vieux, France (who also cast the Robert A. Taft Carillon), and Petit and Fritsen, Ltd. of Aarle-Rixtel, the Netherlands (who also cast The Freedom Bell). The completed set took nine months to create. The result: a 56-bell carillon with a two-octave range, the bells of which scale in size from 21 lbs. to 7,200 lbs., with a combined total weight of 37,150 lbs. across the instrument. The bells were dedicated Sept. 8, 1963. 

Archbishop Patrick O'Boyle and Bishop Philip Hannan stand between the Mary and Christopher bells during the carillon consecration at the Basilica, July 14, 1963. Image credit: Knights of Columbus

Love trivia? Here are a few more fun facts:

  • There are two bell chambers, located at 172 ft. and 223 ft. 
  • The cabin of the carillonneur sits between the tiers of bells at 200 ft.
  • The spiral staircase to the cabin contains a total of 208 steps. 

Meet the bells. 

It is the ancient and recognized custom to inscribe church bells with first-person inscriptions, evoking the spirit and voice of the person for whom the bell is named. The nine largest bells of the 56-bell carillon carry the following inscriptions: 

Bell No. 1 (Bourdon), The Blessed Virgin Mary
B-flat / 7,200 lbs. 

  • Figurine: The Blessed Virgin Mary 
  • Insignia: Emblem of the Third Degree of the Knights of Columbus. This serves as the official “stamp,” designating the entire carillon as the gift of the Knights of Columbus. 
  • Inscription: Mary is my name. / Mary is my sound. / Beloved Mother / Queen of Heaven and Earth / Queen of this dear land / for knights to God and country bound / and all who hear my voice / I sing the praises of God. 
  • Designation: Supreme Knight, Luke E. Hart, under whose leadership both the carillon and the tower were donated to the Shrine, requested that the largest bell be dedicated to the Blessed Mother, Queen of Heaven and Patroness of the U.S., thereby expressing the love and devotion of the Knights to her.

Bell No. 2, Saint Christopher
C / 5,100 lbs. 

  • Figurine: Santa Maria (Ship) 
  • Insignia: The Cross 
  • Inscription: Christopher is my name. / Christ I bear / For Christopher I ring / who placed his hope in Santa Maria/ and crossed the sea / to find this new land. 
  • Designation: Named in honor of Christopher Columbus, the “discoverer” of America.

Bell No. 3, Saint Michael 
D / 3,600 lbs.

  • Insignia: Chalice and Stole 
  • Inscription: The Voice of Michael / Praise to the Lord from the heavens / Praise him in the heights / Praise him all you his angels / Praise him all you his hosts. (Psalm 148)
  • Designation: Named in honor of Fr. Michael J. McGivney (1852-1890), founder of the Knights of Columbus.

Bell No. 4, Saint James 
E-flat / 3,050 lbs. 

  • Insignia: Scallop Shell or Cockleshell 
  • Inscription: The Message of James / Of his own will he has begotten / us by the word of truth / that we may be the first fruits / of his creatures. (James 1.18)
  • Designation: Named in honor of Supreme Knights James T. Mullen (1882-1886), James E. Hayes (1897-1898), and James A. Flaherty (1909-1927).

Bell No. 5, Saint John the Evangelist 
E / 2,550 lbs.

  • Insignia: Eagle 
  • Inscription: I am John, I sing, to him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb, blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever. (Rev. 5.13) 
  • Designation: Named in honor of Supreme Knights John J. Phelan (1886-1897), John J. Cone (1898-1899), and John E. Swift (1945-1953).

Bell No. 6, Saint Edward
F / 2,150 lbs.

  • Insignia: Crown
  • Inscription: I am Edward, I proclaim: Sing praise to God, sing praise, sing praise to our King, sing praise, for our King of all the earth is God, sing hymns of praise. (Psalm 46)
  • Designation: Named in honor of Supreme Knight Edward L. Hearn (1899-1909).

Bell No. 7, Saint Martin of Tours
F-sharp / 1,820 lbs.

  • Insignia: Sword Cutting a Cloak 
  • Inscription: Martin is my name. I sing: Charity is patient, is kind, charity rejoices with the truth. Bears with all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Cor. 13) 
  • Designation: Named in honor of Supreme Knight Martin H. Carmody (1927-1939).

Bell No. 8, Saint Francis of Assisi
G / 1,560 lbs.

  • Insignia: Crossed Arms
  • Inscription: The Canticle of Francis: The Most High Omnipotent Merciful Lord, thine is all praise and every benediction—praise and bless my Lord, render thanks to him and serve him with great humility. 
  • Designation: Named in honor of Supreme Knight Francis P. Matthews (1939-1945).

Bell No. 9, Saint Luke 
G-sharp / 1,330 lbs.

  • Insignia: An Ox
  • Inscription: The Message of Luke. Praise God and say glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to men of good will. (Luke 2.15)
  • Designation: Named in honor of Supreme Knight Luke E. Hart (1953-1964).

Want to tour the tower?

The Knights’ Tower at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception opens to the public once a year. It is a rare chance for Washingtonians and guests of our city to experience an unobstructed view of the magnificent capital skyline. Visitors are granted access on a first-come, first-served basis. Those who arrive in time ascend to the observation level via a dedicated elevator, but must be able to climb 85 steps at the base.

If you aren’t allotted access, or visit the Basilica any other day of the year, you can still enjoy the beautiful sounds of the ringing bells from the ground level. The Mary bell strikes on the hour, with smaller bells sounding on the quarter hours. Additional tolling may be heard (enjoy a preview here) prior to Mass and at the Angelus. Visitors are also treated to carillon recitals each Sunday.

Keep exploring! Learn more about sacred music at the Basilica.