September 18, 2020

179-year-old cupola returned to church > Repairs to Belfast structure total $200,000

BELFAST — “I never thought I would see the day,” said the Rev. Constance S. Wells on Tuesday as a crew from the Art Henry Crane Co. raised the historic cupola back where it belonged, on top of her First Church of Belfast.

It took two years and a $200,000 fund drive to do it. But the church was closer to normal Tuesday than it had been for two years. On Feb. 14, 1995, a crane lifted the cupola off the church to repair damage done in the previous 177 winters.

The top section of the church was getting so bad that the wind whistled through it, disrupting services, Wells said. The concern was that a typical northeaster might pull the cupola down, taking half the church roof with it.

It took only $6,000 to build the church, complete with a 1,260-pound Paul Revere bell, in 1818. Architect Asher Benjamin was noted for his distinctive church bell towers, according to Frank Shaw, chairman of the church board of trustees.

But it will take about $200,000 to complete the cupola job and place siding on the church, the pastor said. When the cupola was examined on the ground, it was found that interior timbers had suffered more rot than expected. The cupola was carefully restored by the Nazaroff Co. of Camden, with as much as possible of the original wood retained, church officials said.

Pastor Wells knew all about the church restoration when she interviewed for the job two years ago. But the job grew much larger than she expected.

“I knew something had to be done. I didn’t know how much needed to be done,” she said. She complimented the church membership of 200 for generous donations “made at a time when Belfast had not really turned the corner yet. We have a small but faithful membership,” she said. Belfast has seen a strong surge in its economy in the last few years with the advent of MBNA credit card company and its several hundred jobs.

Pastor Wells, who came to Belfast from the Sebago Lake area, said the Belfast church is blessed with strong family history with some members who were baptized in the church, married in the church and have seen their children, then grandchildren, baptized in the church.

“It is generally true that church activity is down, but I believe that we will see a resurgence as people long for more spirituality. We have to learn to get across to more people that we are not as stiff as we were,” Pastor Wells said.

The First Church was organized by seven members on Dec. 29, 1796. The congregation divided in 1820, then reunited 101 years later. Affiliated with the United Church of Christ, the church celebrated its bicentennial in 1996, without the cupola. The building, erected in 1818 was the largest structure in the city for many years, easily seating 400.

With one major donation to get things started, the church congregation has pledged most of the $200,000, with some help from the public. Some out-of-state residents have sent checks, after hearing of the project as they passed through Belfast, according to church secretary Anetta Zea.

The church boasts an historic Tracker organ, built in Boston. An organ intended as the first one was lost in the 1830s in a shipwreck on the way from Boston, according to Shaw. The replacement organ was heavily damaged by raccoons, then restored.

As chairman of the board of trustees, retired Lt. Col. Shaw was given the chance Tuesday to ride the crane up to the church steeple to replace the repaired weather vane. “When I was in the service, they asked me if I wanted to go airborne. I said `Are you out of your mind?’ When they asked me about the banner, I asked my wife, hoping she would say no. But she just said it was up to me. The longer I wait, the less interested I am,” Shaw said.

Eventually, Shaw and contractor David Nazaroff went up in the cage to replace the weather vane. “It was pretty uneventful,” said Shaw, after the fact.

“I think we are all set for another 200 years,” Pastor Wells said as the crane company was finishing up its work.

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