LUNENBURG, Vt. -- No one knew what would happen when the giant crane lifted the 5-ton steeple off First Congregational Church.
After all, it was 157 years old and ravaged by storms, wind, and neglect.
"We were worried about it just disintegrating," said contractor Tim Betts, one of the volunteers involved. "We didn't know if it would support its own weight."
With the precision of a surgeon, crane operator Brian Clifford and his 94,000-pound crane lifted the spire up off the church Saturday and slowly lowered it to the grass below as camera-toting residents watched, setting the stage for a yearlong restoration preserving the icon of this small Northeast Kingdom town.
"I think it's great they're doing this," said Maureen Marshall, 61, who was among them. "If the steeple went away, there would go Lunenburg, to me."
Built in 1850, the one-story clapboard church -- white, with green shutters -- hasn't functioned as a church since the 1950s, lapsing into little more than a decoration for the town green it overlooks.
Locals say it's one of Vermont's most-photographed churches, its hilltop location and quintessential New England look making it a destination for weddings.
Over the years, restoration work has been done on a piecemeal basis, with the Lunenburg Congregational Church Restoration and Preservation Society raising some money and volunteers raising some to replace the roof, fortify the foundation, and restore one of its stained-glass windows.
A $5,450 state historic preservation grant paid for reinforcement of the floor joists.
"We just pick at it, piece by piece," said Carol Wenmark, president of the Lunenburg Historical Society.
A more organized effort began in 2005, when a group of citizens calling itself the Top of the Common Committee Inc. formed a plan to spend $300,000 to renovate both the church and the adjacent Town Hall building, which was built in 1849 and is in equally bad shape.
The goal is to return the church to the status it once held here, as a community gathering place or cultural center hosting concerts and other events.
The pace of work accelerated after an April northeaster blew a section off the steeple, prompting fears that the steeple would be knocked off before it could be replaced.
"If nature takes it off, we'll never get it back on," said Larry Amadon, a contractor who volunteered to help remove it.
The money still must be raised.
Organizers hope to lift the steeple back into place atop the church next summer.