The Magnificent Site on Commonwealth Avenue: Father Gasson’s Bell Tower Brings Boston College to New Heights

The bell tower and clock

Gasson Hall exterior: bell tower looking up from ground, undated. Box 4, folder 76, Boston College Building and Campus Images, BC.1987.012, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

When Thomas Gasson, S.J., assumed the role of president at Boston College in January 1907, the community soon became aware of his desire to transform the small school into a university. That June, Gasson began petitioning his Jesuit superiors in Rome, college alumni, and local Catholics to support his plan to physically separate the college from its high school program in their shared, cramped quarters in Boston’s South End. In December, he announced the purchase of a new site for the college–a Chestnut Hill farm in the nearby suburb of Newton. Gasson had to bypass doubt from the Jesuit hierarchy, scarcity of local funds, and floundering support from the diocesan leadership when attempting to erect a new campus on “University Heights.”

The four bells of the Gasson tower fondly named Ignatius, Xavier, Gonzaga, and Berchmans

Gasson Hall interior: tower, four bells named Ignatius, Xavier, Berchmans, and Gonzaga, undated. Box 6, folder 37-38, Boston College Building and Campus Images, BC.1987.012, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

It was ultimately his dedication that set the course for the emergence of the lavish campus of today.

Gasson held an architectural competition to select the type of campus that would adorn the hilltop grounds. The Gothic design he chose was created by Maginnis & Walsh Architects. Gasson’s detailed construction demands included that the “Recitation Building” was to be the first and most elaborate structure to be built.

The recitation building in the new Chestnut Hill campus

Gasson Hall exterior: bell tower through trees from dirt road with horse and buggy, 1915. Box 4, folder 83, Boston College Building and Campus Images, BC.1987.012, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

The bell tower erected atop this building became the physical manifestation of Gasson’s perseverance to create what he called “the greatest Catholic college in America.” Additionally, the tower ascending above a former farm symbolized the concurrent ascendency of Catholics in the greater area–with once-marginalized Catholics assuming prestigious and influential positions in politics, business, and social circles. Unsurprisingly then, even considering he faced so many obstacles to his efforts, Gasson chose the most expensive option for the bells that would ring down the hillside towards Boston. Today, the chiming of the four brass bells atop the building now bearing Gasson’s name reverberate feelings of nostalgia and tradition within the hearts of so many in the Boston College community.

  • Brenna Andreozzi 2017, Sociology & Education & Spring 2015 Making History Public Student

The images and content in this blog post are from the exhibit #WeWereBC, which is now on display in the History Department, Stokes 3rd Floor South.    This exhibit was curated and organized by Professor Seth Meehan’s Spring 2015 Making History Public class, in collaboration with the Boston College University Libraries.  

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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One Response to The Magnificent Site on Commonwealth Avenue: Father Gasson’s Bell Tower Brings Boston College to New Heights

  1. Patrick J. Daly says:

    Everyone who has graduated from Boston College should be forever grateful for Fr. Gasson’s far reaching vision and healthy ambitions for a school that was destined for greatness. The Towers on the Heights symbolized back in 1913 the ascendancy of the Catholic Church in the greater Boston area and continues to symbolize the iconic presence and aspiring ambitions of a renowned university still faithful to its roots while striving to live up to that ever familiar motto “ever to excel.” May those bells continue to ring!

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