Basilica clock to get modern update in time for papal visit


When Pope John Paul II arrives at the Basilica of the Assumption Oct. 8 in procession from Camden Yards, the cathedral's clock will be tolling the hours for the first time in many years.

But the French-made Collin & Wagner clock, which was installed in 1866 facing Mulberry Street, will be operating on a new electric movement.

R. Mark Mitchell, an antique clock restorer who worked on the basilica clock last year, calls it an act of "historical vandalism."

The new movement will be installed beginning Oct. 2 and will retain the original dial and hands. The old mechanism will be placed in the planned Basilica Museum.

Wayne Ruth, chairman of the Basilica Historical Trust, said he at first opposed replacing the old mechanism, which sextons wind by hand daily. However, he said he gave in after consultants, including those from the Smithsonian Institution, studied the old clock and said replacement was the best solution to the problem of constant repair and to preserve the old clock.

"I'm not happy, but it's the right thing to do for future generations," Mr. Ruth said.

Mr. Mitchell, however, remains displeased. "It's a sacrilege. I'm livid," he declared. "They even had the nerve to ask me to come and help disassemble the clock. I have no intention of doing that," he said.

Mr. Mitchell said the archdiocese paid him $6,000 last year to repair the movement so the clock would tell time again. In late July he submitted his proposal to repair the striking mechanism but said he heard nothing until Wednesday, when he received a call that the job had been called off.

"They want to get the bells striking for the pope's visit," confirmed Paul Webster, project manager for Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, the development company working on a long-term restoration of the Basilica.

Mr. Ruth said two of the three people he consulted, including Mr. Mitchell, said the clock mechanism would suffer from being repaired and eventually "would be destroyed." He said, "It's painful, but I think we'll all be pleased with it. This decision is really about how to preserve the historicity of the clock."

Mr. Mitchell said the clock mechanism is "perfectly repairable. The repair would be worthy of the clock, and it would last for many years, several generations, before it would need another major overhaul."

The new electric movement is being fabricated by Americlock Inc. in Lexington, Mass., which specializes in tower clocks. A spokeswoman said the company made a similar change in the clock mechanism at St. Michael's Church, Charlestown, S.C., one of the oldest clocks in the country.

Mr. Ruth said the replacement of the clock mechanism will cost about $30,000, and donations are welcome.

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