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Steeple chase nears final hurdle at First Parish

Progress at First Parish Church restoration project: Workers built a scaffold shelter around the steeple earlier this month. Progress at First Parish Church restoration project: Workers built a scaffold shelter around the steeple earlier this month.

If all goes well, this will be the year that the exterior of First Parish Church is restored to its original 1896 glory. The crowning achievement of that huge effort will come when a crane swings the steeple of the grand white church back onto its lofty perch above Meetinghouse Hill.

This week, the minister who has led the congregation through the ambitious project passed along exciting news: It looks like the steeple’s top sections will be back atop the church in time for Dorchester Day in early June. “We expect that we should be able to put the steeple up on Memorial Day weekend,” said Rev. Art Lavoie. “Folks will see scaffolding going back up around the church in March.”

This is a big deal to a lot of people who’ve never even darkened the door of the church itself. First Parish is at once a symbol of the community’s earliest colonial days and of the constant churn of noble civic endeavors that continue in modern times. The church is also one of Dorchester’s most recognizable landmarks and its steeple — even now at half-mast— is a distinct feature of our community’s skyline.

By 2007, the lantern section near the top looked like a swift wind might send it toppling – a frightening scenario given its proximity to the Mather School. In fact, the leaning tower was symptomatic of a larger problem: a historic church that was near-crippled by years of deferred maintenance.

Rev. Lavoie and a dedicated team of leaders within First Parish have done the community a great service by focusing so much energy and money on the restoration. Last year, the congregation auctioned off a cherished colonial silver collection to help pay for the work. They’ve also been aided by a preservation community that firmly grasps the importance of this building to the neighborhood and the region.

Earlier this month, 12 students and their instructors from the North Bennett Street School in Boston began the task of rebuilding the steeple’s top sections on an empty lot across the street from the church. The lantern sections of the structure have been stored there since workmen hoisted the steeple off its moorings in November 2006. The workers have just completed a scaffold structure around the steeple and will cover it with a tarp that will allow them to work throughout the winter months.

“The good news is that the North Bennett team thinks they can restore the lantern section without having to totally rebuild it,” Lavoie said.

In the meantime, other work crews from Murphy’s Specialties will be scraping paint off the side of the church to ready it for a new coat later this year. Lavoie says that the sides of the church along Parish Street and the Mather School will be done over the summer, when school is out of session.

The total cost of the multi-phase restoration project, which has already dealt with emergency repairs, has been estimated at $5.2 million. The steeple work alone will cost some $1.2 million— and much of that funding will be expended this year, leaving the church with another big fundraising challenge in its future.

It’s worth it. Rev. Lavoie and his team are beginning to plan out a special event to mark the “topping-off” of the steeple around Memorial Day. Check out their page on Facebook and the Reporter for details and updates on the progress of the project in the coming weeks.

– Bill Forry