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Time After Time

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“The bells, the bells!” screeched Quasimodo and many a visitor not accustomed to their nocturnal clanging.  Even in daylight hours their chimes can be deafening, eliminating any attempt at conversation.  Frequently visitors ask me to explain the rationale behind the cacophony of sounds and there is some.

Some mornings I’ll see a really drunk lad slamming his bare chest against a bell.  Chances are his wife had a baby that morning and he’s announcing the arrival of new soul.  Other days the bells will ring on my street all day and I’ll learn a neighbor has died and she never married.  So the bells announce the arrival of a new virgin into Heaven.  The sounds can also signify a Virgin or saint being celebrated that day or time to begin a mass.

The only bells with rhyme or reason are in the clock tower of the Santa Escuela church alongside the Parroquia.  Its original bell tower was moved down to the waterworks area of town called El Chorro and now looms over a Cultural School of the Arts.  Build in 1762 the clock was a gift from the city of Madrid.   The replacement bell tower that we see off the jardin today has a set pattern to indicate the hour, quarter, half and quarter of for each hour of the day.

Statues in front of clock tower, Zona Centro, San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico

The clock tower needs wound each week and for the last 35 years that has been the job of clock maker, Raul Rose.  Raul explained how weights are used to descend throughout the week keeping the time accurate.  However, cold weather speeds the weights, and time, up while warm weather slows both the weights and clock’s time.

It’s hard work to crank the weights back up the tower for the new week and requires physical training.  Raul keenly wants the tradition to continue but we’ll see if a new generation of clock enthusiasts will take over.

The Santa Escuela church is named for St. Raphael, an archangel like St. Michael.  The clock tower was refaced after Zeferino Gutierrez added the iconic façade to St. Michael’s (the Parroquia).  Zeferino feared that San Raphael’s original Baroque style would clash with his Gothic masterpiece.

Santa Escuela (or San Raphael’s) was originally built just after the town’s founding in the mid-1500s.  To climb up the clock tower you pass by the tombs of former San Miguel folks on your way past the choir loft.

Bells and chimes are an important part of what makes Mexico still Catholic by culture if not conviction.  In fact, a partial reason for the failure of Mexico to ever completely separate church and state was how in countries that did, like Russia, the bells were removed from their towers.  Here in Mexico they were not so while folks talked about separating off the Church from politics the bells rang all day to remind you to come to church.

by Joseph Toone

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