Point of pride: After two centuries, South Congregational Church is getting a new steeple — an exact replica of the old one

Crew members from Wilcox Builders work to fit the barrel section of the new South Congregational Church steeple onto the belfry as its lifted by crane into place Friday morning in South Amherst.

Crew members from Wilcox Builders work to fit the barrel section of the new South Congregational Church steeple onto the belfry as its lifted by crane into place Friday morning in South Amherst. FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

Crew members add the upper belfry and the barrel to the new South Congregational Church steeple last Friday in South Amherst.

Crew members add the upper belfry and the barrel to the new South Congregational Church steeple last Friday in South Amherst. FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

Crew members from Wilcox Builders work on the belfry section of the new South Congregational Church steeple last Friday morning in South Amherst.

Crew members from Wilcox Builders work on the belfry section of the new South Congregational Church steeple last Friday morning in South Amherst. FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

Crew members from Wilcox Builders work on the belfry section of the new South Congregational Church steeple Friday morning in South Amherst.

Crew members from Wilcox Builders work on the belfry section of the new South Congregational Church steeple Friday morning in South Amherst. FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

Crew members fit the barrel section onto the belfry as it’s lifted by crane into place Friday.

Crew members fit the barrel section onto the belfry as it’s lifted by crane into place Friday. FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

Crew members work to fit the barrel section of the new steeple onto the belfry last Friday.

Crew members work to fit the barrel section of the new steeple onto the belfry last Friday. FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

Crew members from Wilcox Builders work to fit the barrel section of the new South Congregational Church steeple onto the belfry as its lifted by crane into place Friday morning in South Amherst.

Crew members from Wilcox Builders work to fit the barrel section of the new South Congregational Church steeple onto the belfry as its lifted by crane into place Friday morning in South Amherst. FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

By JAMES PENTLAND

Staff Writer

Published: 06-27-2024 7:11 PM

AMHERST — Battered by storms, ice and snow for two centuries, it was only a matter of time before the South Congregational Church’s post-and-beam steeple needed more than cosmetic repairs.

That time came this spring when Wilcox Builders of Hatfield and engineer Michael Schafer of Huntley Associates in Northampton took on the job of removing and replacing the old steeple, which was suffering from rot and tilting.

Funded by a $239,000 Community Preservation Act grant, the project has involved building four large sections using conventional, modern construction methods to produce a historically accurate replica of the original steeple.

Three weeks ago, Schafer said, the lower sections, known as the upper tower and the lower belfry, were hoisted into place. On Friday, the upper belfry and the barrel, weighing 9,600 pounds, were added to the structure by means of a 40-ton crane with a 125-foot boom. The existing bell assembly was installed just beforehand.

“Next Friday, we’ll put the conical roof on, plus the weathervane,” Schafer said.

A dedication ceremony is scheduled for July 6 at 11 a.m., one of several events marking the church’s 200th anniversary.

Wilcox Builders owner Matt Wilcox’s entire family came out to watch Friday’s operation.

“We get as much work done on the ground as we can so as to limit the work up in the air,” he said.

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He said he has been able to save some of the original woodwork with repairs, and was hoping the original barrel could be saved, but it was too rotted.

A big challenge in lifting the sections into place, Wilcox said, comes with precisely lining up the threaded rods, 56 in all, that provide structural stability.

He built most of the steeple himself.

“The conical roof took me a weekend,” he said.

Trustee Mark Marasco said the church was originally a meetinghouse for South Amherst residents who got tired of schlepping to the center of town, and it’s still used as a community center, hosting choral and organ recitals and other cultural events.

The fully mechanical organ, built by the Casavant company of Quebec, is an attraction for enthusiasts. It was donated from a Catholic church in Rhode Island, and was restored by Bill Czelusniak of Northampton.

The building was last renovated 15 to 20 years ago, Marasco said, with new siding and windows for the sanctuary, and a 50-kilowatt solar array was added to the roof of the education building in 2013.

The bell and the weathervane have both been saved, though the ball on the weathervane will be replaced, Schafer said, the old one having been appropriated from a toilet cistern.

The Revere bell was built by Paul Revere’s son, Marasco said, and installed in 1850. He said people have been missing its peals during construction.

“The bell used to ring every hour,” he said. “It will again, on July 6.”

James Pentland can be reached at jpentland@gazettenet.com.