Punch Williamson checked his watch. It was 3:33 p.m. on Jan. 19, and the bells in the highest-elevation cathedral in the contiguous United States were running late.
The bells should have rung to mark the half hour. “I think the old guy is just running slow,” Williamson said.
He would know. The British expat, who was born in Chile, has been maintaining and ringing the bells of St. Matthew Episcopalian Cathedral in Laramie since 1995. Now 80, his age does not keep him from scaling narrow metal ladders inside the 118-foot-tall clock tower.
On Tuesday, Williamson made the climb for a particular reason. The Episcopal Diocese in Wyoming had invited each of its churches to heed a national call from President Joe Biden. The new president asked churches to ring their bells, Americans to put candles in their windows and cities to light their buildings in a moment of remembrance for the nation’s COVID-19 fatalities.
Shortly after 3:34, Williamson pulled a chain to ring one of the church’s deeper timbred bells. He continued to pull the chain, and the bells tolled over Laramie for the next 400 seconds — a little over six minutes.
Each second represented 1,000 Americans killed by the virus, Williamson said. The nation’s death toll surpassed 400,000 the day of the memorial. Williamson himself has lost friends and family to the disease, he said, not just here but in England and South Africa and elsewhere around the world. It was important to memorialize the dead, he said.
The original construction of St. Matthew’s Episcopalian Cathedral was completed in 1896. The church was built with sandstone quarried northeast of town, according to its website. At that time and for many years after, the church’s nave was the largest room in Laramie, Williamson said. The bells were purchased in Boston later, and the church’s clock tower was completed in 1916.
Laramie banker and philanthropist Edward Ivinson paid for the project to memorialize the death of his wife Jane.
The metal ladders pass by hanging bells of various sizes to the clock at the top of the tower. The bells are still those shipped west from Boston more than a century ago.
Someone must wind the clock every eight days with a metal crank handle more than a foot long. For more than two decades, that task has often rested on Williamson.
From the clock room, Williamson can look out slit windows towards the Snowy Mountain Range to the west. He can look south over Laramie and its roughly 33,000 souls, east towards the Laramie Range and north to where town gives way to plains.