Basilica’s carillonneur has high calling at Christmas

Correction: The article incorrectly referred to the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music at Catholic University, where Grogan teaches, as a music department. This version has been corrected.


Robert Grogan has been the carillonneur at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception since 1964. (Hamil R. Harris/The Washington Post)
December 24, 2012

For nearly 50 years, Robert B. Grogan has ignored howling winds and frigid temperatures to climb hundreds of steps up into the tower of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and manually play, with his fists and his feet, 56 carillon bells, as he will do after Tuesday’s noon choral Mass for Christmas.

Whether it has been to celebrate the arrivals of Pope John Paul or Pope Benedict, or to remember the 26 children and adults who died Dec. 14 in the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., or to entertain the faithful arriving Monday on Christmas Eve for midnight Mass, Grogan has never missed a major event as the basilica’s carillonneur.

There are other bells in the tower that can be played electronically from below, but not the bronze carillons.

“You can’t play with your fingers on the carillon keyboard because the bell action is too heavy,” said Grogan, 73, a resident of Silver Spring, who donned an overcoat Monday as he climbed 208 steps up a spiral staircase to the “playing cabin.” He’s been making the winding ascent since 1964.

For 34 years, he was also the organist at the basilica, but he retired from that post in 2008. (He still plays organ at Masses during the week and teaches organ in the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music at Catholic University.)

“What I do is rather unique, and I enjoy it for its musical and spiritual interest,” said Grogan, explaining that an hour of “really athletic” music on the carillons can be draining.

“When I say I am a carillonneur, most people might think that it is an electronic instrument with loudspeakers in the tower, but what you have here is very physical,” Grogan said. “To chime the bells requires sounds made from a wooden keyboard with levers for the hands and feet, and the loudest of the sound depends on how hard I strike the lever.”

There are two chambers for the carillons, one at 172 feet and the other at 223 feet above the ground. Grogan’s frigid playing cabin sits at 200 feet. To get there, he must take an elevator to the sixth floor of the bell tower, walk up a ladder and climb through a trap door before he even reaches the spiral staircase.

The largest of the carillons, called the Virgin Mary, weighs 31 / 2 tons. The basilica’s carillons were cast in Annecy, France, shortly before they were installed in 1963. For carillon aficionados, the basilica’s French bells sound different from the National Cathedral’s English carillons and Arlington National Cemetery’s Dutch set.

Grogan, who learned how to play the bells as a music major at the University of Kansas, can certainly hear the difference. He’s stayed at the basilica all these years because he loves the bells, and he enjoys the variety of his other musical vocations, be it playing organ now for weekday Masses or teaching organ at the university.

There’s a familiarity to the Christmas season, and yet there are events he can never anticipate. Grogan fought back tears last week after he sounded the 31 / 2-ton Virgin Mary 26 times for the children and adults killed in Newtown. “As a grandfather with seven grandchildren,” Grogan said, “I thought about what an ordeal these people went through, and this horrible event.”

Tuesday’s Christmas carols will be joyous — and not too difficult. With his overcoat on, he’ll hardly break a sweat.

Hamil Harris is currently a multi-platform reporter on the Local Desk of The Washington Post.
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