As 85-year-old Mary O’Kane strained at the bell ropes in the steeple of historic Arlington Street Church, she imagined the sounds spreading a healing across her city — and the land.
Sprinkled amid hymns like “Amazing Grace” and “A Mighty Fortress,” patriotic tunes like “America the Beautiful” and “God Bless America” wafted down from the 199-foot steeple and over Boston Common across the street. O’Kane, known to parishioners as “Woody the bell ringer,” hoped President Barack Obama, who was attending a service at a nearby Catholic cathedral, might hear them and be comforted, as she was.
“I feel joyful. I feel worshipful. I feel glad to be alive,” she said, casting a sideways glance two blocks down, where twin bombs shattered the triumph of the Boston Marathon on Monday. “Eastern philosophy believes a lot in vibrations. And it’s certainly vibration that the bells send out all over the place.”
O’Kane, who has been playing the 16-bell carillon since 1981, was at her home on Beacon Hill reading a book when the pressure-cooker bombs exploded, killing three people and wounding nearly 200 more. But her shock soon turned to pride, as she watched the response from the city, and the nation.
“This is a fantastic town,” she said. “I’ve seen ads everywhere since then: ‘I’ll sleep with a friend and you can have my bed if you’re stranded.’ ‘I have an extra bedroom, an extra bed.’”
Between songs, she stared out the window, in hopes of catching a glimpse of Air Force One. Sirens wailed in the street below.
Suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, O’Kane had to rest between pulling on the plastic coated ropes — anchored to eyebolts in the plaster-strewn window sill, each marked with a yellow wooden number.
O’Kane doesn’t know whether the president heard her concert. But Casey Haflord, who works in a real estate office two doors down, found the music comforting.
“It makes me smile just talking about it right now,” she said as she stood beneath the brownstone edifice, completed in 1861, the year the Civil War began. “I’m proud to be from here. I grew up here, I work here. I walk down Boylston Street every day. It’s just nice to hear.”
O’Kane said she now has a tiny sense of what it might be like to live in the Middle East, where such events are commonplace. And it gives her pause.
“Maybe we might think before we do more of those drone things, you know?” she said. “Knocking out a whole apartment complex to get at a suspected Taliban or something like that.”
O’Kane believes the city will come through this, stronger than ever. But she feels a new kinship with New Yorkers, and saddened by yet another bit of innocence lost.
“I mean, it happened — it finally happened,” she said sadly. “We were feeling sort of immune. Now we’re just a part of everybody — more a part of everybody. The same expectations and fears.”