Kevin Di Camillo writes regularly for The National Catholic Register and is a Lecturer in English Literature at Niagara University. His latest book is Now Chiefly Poetical, and with Rev. Lawrence Boadt he edited John Paul II in the Holy Land: In His Own Words. His work has been anthologized in Wild Dreams: The Best of Italian-Americana, and he was awarded the Foley Poetry Prize from America Magazine. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, he regularly attends Yale University’s School of Management Publishing Course.
Bell towers—both secular and church-bound—figure so prominently in so many movies that it seems almost too obvious to mention any of them. However, who can forget the opening sound of Big Ben in Sir Carol Reed’s film noir version of Graham Greene’s novel, The Third Man. (This is a bit of a McGuffin, as the entire movie takes place in Vienna, and not at all in London).
Then there is the tragic/comic—mainly tragic—scene in the last great World War II film (until 1998’s Saving Private Ryan), the 1962 epic The Longest Day, where Red Buttons’s character, whose parachute gets caught on a French church steeple after an air-drop, and is hung up helpless as he watches the Nazis gun down his fellow D-Day paratroopers—all the while going deaf from the incessant ringing of the bells. (This character with the “hard-of-hearing” schtick was revived for Saving Private Ryan). Then there is the eerily silent scene in Otto Preminger’s The Cardinal where Bishop Stephen Fermoyle, on a semi-official visit from Rome, turns and looks at Vienna’s cathedral, Stephansdom—only to see the ominous Nazi flag flying in full force from it.
However, just today I drove by a bell tower—or rather, was stuck in an insuperable summer traffic jam in front of one. This particular tower figures even more prominently than all of the above in the somewhat forgotten classic film noir, Niagara, featuring Joseph Cotten and Marilyn Monroe, where this very bell tower is the center of the dramatic action—along with the Falls itself, of course. And though I grew up in Niagara Falls—and have now, after twenty years away, moved back here—I noticed something about this tower that I’d never, ever seen before: at its base is a lengthy quote from the Bible. Specifically, Genesis, 12: 9-17, according to the King James Bible. (This is, after all, Canada). The words inscribed follow:
And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth. And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud: And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh. And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth. And God said unto Noah, This is the token of the covenant, which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth.
After reading the biblical verses, a few things became evident. The first was the fact that this bridge—which connects Niagara Falls, New York to Niagara Falls, Ontario—was named “The Rainbow Bridge” for a reason: on a sunny day in any season, rainbows abound, as this is the bridge closest to the Falls themselves. (For you purists out there: “Niagara Falls” is the collective term for the three discrete falls that make up the cataracts: The Horseshoe Falls (aka The Canadian Falls), the American Falls (usually just called “Niagara” since it is the most recognizable), and the Bridal Veil Falls.)
Unlike the other three bridges that connect these two cities which share a common name, the Rainbow Bridge isn’t named for a city (or cities), or a landmark, but for an ephemeral, seasonal sign: the rainbow.
And long before Jesse Jackson’s “Rainbow Coalition” and the “gay pride” flag, both of which have tried to co-opt the rainbow for political purposes, this Canadian entryway, with its lovely carillon replete with bells on the inside and the Franco-British coat of arms on the outside, reminds us that the rainbow is, from at least the time of Noah, a biblical symbol not only of hope, but one of a covenant between God and Man—namely, that He will save us, if we are true to His covenant.
No one knows exactly who came up with the name “The Rainbow Bridge” but it doesn’t take a Ph.D. in Philology or Ecology to agree that for an area that abounds in Rainbows nearly year-round, “Rainbow Bridge” was a fitting moniker. Also: naming it “Honeymoon Bridge II” would have been like calling a ship “Titanic II”.
But more importantly—and again, one need not be a Scripture Scholar to see this—a Rainbow IS a bridge. And, according to the Book of Genesis, the rainbow is “the covenant with Noah…[which] involves the whole creation.” This note, from The New Jerusalem Bible, is telling and important, because the Rainbow Bridge was for decades THE entrance to Canada. (Between twenty and thirty million people visit Niagara Falls each year and they generally wind up on the Canadian side since the view is better.) It was obviously important to the Canadians who built this entrance to welcome visitors not only with bells (signifying joy), but a verse of Scripture reassuring them of God’s covenant.
Not so much on the American side. The usual reason for this: most people enter New York STATE via New York City (think of the Statue of Liberty) and leave New York State via Niagara Falls and thus Niagara Falls, New York was a sort of back-door to Canada’s grand front entrance—though weirdly for several years there were small murals by the 1960s “peace-artist” Peter Max on all of the American Niagara Falls bridges. Mercifully, they are gone now.
And thankfully some humorous atheist has not (yet) taken down the venerable words of Holy Writ that adorn the Canadian Rainbow bell-tower.
But Canada—the one country you could once count on for not only a good lager, excellent fishing, strict blue laws (almost all businesses were closed on Sunday), no crime to speak of, bilingual education, and generous immigration policies—seems hell-bent on jettisoning not only its Anglo-French roots, but its common sense and sense of history as well.
In America, we are often told, mainly by politicians with axes, adzes, hatchets, and tomahawks to grind, that “we are a nation of immigrants”—whatever that is supposed to mean, if it means anything at all. However, I don’t think the same can be said about Canada, which was never so much a destination as a way to get to the U.S. (my maternal great grandparents came to the U.S. through Canada). Not for nothing does Canada have the largest land mass of any country in the world save Russia—but fewer people in it than the single state of California.
And while Canada always had the good sense to let Quebec speak French, practice Catholicism and hold referendum after referendum on whether or not to secede (and Quebec always seemed to come to its senses and stay part of the Canadian Experience), lately its Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seems the antithesis of everything that Canadian bell tower proudly proclaims: belief in an all-just and all-loving Judeo-Christian God who wants to build a rainbow covenant with us—if only we will cross the bridge to meet Him.