Thursday, 4:30 PM
First Parish steeple comes down for repairs
By Charles A. Radin
The lantern room that topped First Parish Church in Dorchester for the past 110 years was lifted off the church’s 150-foot steeple Friday and deposited in a repair area next to the white clapboard building on historic Meetinghouse Hill.
Several dozen parishioners and neighborhood residents chatted for more than two hours as work crews checked and rechecked cables and braces. Then they watched in hushed silence as a crane slowly moved the 40-foot, 10,000-pound structure through the brilliant, late-autumn sunshine.
‘‘I guess the praying worked,’’ master carpenter Daniel Bannon said with a grin as the steeple top, a mass of cracked paint, partially rotted wood, and angles that were no longer plumb, settled on the repair site.
Now, members of the Boston area’s oldest religious community say, all they have to do is raise the money to complete repairs and put it back.
The lantern, a brightly lit, glassed-in room at the top of the steeple, long had made the First Parish a landmark by night as well as day. Congregants still love to talk about how air traffic controllers at Logan International Airport sometimes called if the electric lights went out and ask that they be turned back on for the benefit of incoming pilots.
But in recent years the small octagonal room began slanting noticeably to one side, raising fears it might be toppled by a major storm.
‘‘It needed to come down,’’ said Christopher Montani, chairman of the church’s board of trustees. ‘‘The more we waited, the more costly it would have become.’’
Michael Pratt, a parishioner who works as a waiter in the Boston Marriott Long Wharf hotel, was ecstatic.
‘‘I’ve spent years of my life on this and now it’s finally happening,’’ Pratt said, describing time spent convincing the congregation’s 70 members to turn their attention from the well-kept sanctuary to the crumbling, peeling exterior of the building. ‘‘The days of being able to get by with patching were over.’’
A bequest of about $200,000 from a former parishioner got the repair effort off to a good start, and a series of concerts, art sales, and other events raised another $100,000.
That was enough money, said the Rev. Arthur Lavoie, the current pastor, to take down and repair the lantern and the belfry on which the lantern rests. The belfry was the source of the rot that led to the pronounced list in the lantern. He said that an additional $150,000 must be raised to complete the job of repairing and replacing the top of the steeple.
‘‘It does need paint badly,’’ Lavoie said Friday, surveying the exterior of the church. ‘‘But we need to keep the steeple from collapsing into the sanctuary first.’’
John Pilling, the architect for the steeple renovation, said that it would take an additional $1 million to $2 million to do a complete renovation. But he said the small congregation’s ability to combine bequests, donations, and grants from the Steeple Project of Historic Boston Incorporated to get this far justified optimism about the future.
The church was founded in 1630 by the same congregation of Puritans that founded Dorchester a few months before the founding of Boston. Only the first churches of the Plymouth and Salem colonists predated it. First Parish has been a Unitarian church since Unitarians split off from Congregationalists in a theological dispute in the early 19th century, Lavoie said.
The building is the sixth structure to house First Parish. The first two were near present-day Edward Everett Square. The second building was moved from its original site to what was then known as Rocky Hill in 1670. The current building, built in 1897, is a close copy of the fifth structure, which was built in 1816 and destroyed by fire in 1896.
As they waited for the big move Friday, congregants spoke about whether the golden decoration between the weather vane and the lantern was a stylized pine cone, a pineapple or an acorn, and wondered what might be inside it.
The minister in 1816 put a time capsule there, Pilling said, and the contents were supplemented after the steeple was struck by lightning in the 1830s, and again after the 1896 fire.