SOUTHWEST HARBOR—One of the oldest beacons in the Great Harbor is getting a facelift.
Members of the Southwest Harbor Historical Society are sending out an S.O.S. – Save Our Steeple – for help in funding repairs to the tallest part of what is now called the Manset Meeting House on Seawall Road.
Repairs are estimated to cost $135,000 and are partially being funded with a $60,000 grant from the Maine Steeples Fund. Another donor has offered a $20,000 matching grant towards the project.
“That will take us up to $100,000,” said Aimee Williams, president of the historical society, explaining how the donor will match whatever donations are made to the society up to $20,000.
In 2018, the historical society hired a steeplejack to do an assessment on the steeple of the building that served as a church for the majority of its existence. They then applied for the grant last November. After being approved for almost half the cost of repairs, Belden Morse, who owns and operates Steeple People out of Machias, started working in April.
“We’ve uncovered a lot of wood that revealed a lot that I didn’t want to see,” said Morse, referring to extensive rot inside several parts of the steeple. “If I had known, I would have approached it differently… I would have suggested taking it off.”
Last week, Morse was in the process of creating a foundation of large timbers on which the bell could sit to be removed. Jacks propped up each window of the belfry to keep them stable. Made out of either metal or cast iron, Morse estimated the grand chime weighs about 1,200 pounds and was likely installed in the building shortly after it was constructed in the early 1800s. Removing it from the steeple would allow for easier access to the internal structure to make repairs. “It’s just so fragile,” he said. “A lot of churches don’t even use the bell because of their age.”
Having grown up as the son of a fisherman, Morse compares the construction of steeples to that of boats. Vents on the sides of the belfry or tower of the steeple are similar to scupper holes that help water drain out, he explains.
“They’re like a boat upside down, so to say,” he said. “You’ll never get it completely dry. It gets all the weather and all the wind.”
One mistake some people make when working on steeples is plugging those holes, which traps the water inside, he added.
Morse is one of the few people in the state who works on steeples and he fell into the work by accident. When Morse was younger, a man who was afraid of heights was hired to paint the Mormon church in Jonesport. Morse agreed to do the higher work, which at the time involved being strapped into a chair and pulled up the steeple by ropes. After the job was finished, he realized there may be a specialized market he could tap into and began painting steeples regularly. Eventually, Morse added repairs to his offerings and has been at it for the last 30 years.
It isn’t only water that deteriorates the integrity of a steeple; wildlife can play a part as well.
“Raccoons and pigeons,” said Morse. “The acid from their droppings can eat at the wood.”
To begin the work, Morse and his crew gave the cedar shingles along the spire and the vinyl siding around the tower a coat of fresh paint. After the painting was done, the crew ventured inside the steeple, which led them to do some work under the eaves of the building.
“It’s like doing a motor job,” explained Morse. “You replace some parts and it puts stress on the older part… Most of it’s very time consuming. You have to think about things.”
To learn more or make a donation to the S.O.S. campaign, contact Aimee Williams at [email protected]