Steeple will stay at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Grafton
Those white signs on the scaffold surrounding the St. Mary's church steeple show that it goes up 18 levels, or 18 flights, from ground to tip. CECILIA NASMITH/Northumberland Today
When they set up the scaffolding around the steeple, members of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Grafton were prepared for the worst.
Unable to afford to save the age- and weather-worn spire that has long been a landmark for so many in the area, they announced plans to bring it down, cap it and top it with an artfully designed cross.
Then the engineer, architect and contractors took a closer look and determined it can be saved for very close to what they had budgeted for its removal.
Though the work is just beginning, Father David West said, everyone is overjoyed with the news.
West gives a lot of credit to the team that is making it possible, including engineer Ben Burke.
Sky High Restorations and Renovations of Roseneath is the contractor, and they have done steeple work in Campbellford as well.
“This company has the knowledge and experience, and not many local companies will touch the steeple of a church,” West said.
The architect is Terry White of the Bentin Group in Toronto, who has worked with Sky High and been impressed with the results.
Over two and a half weeks, the 18 levels of scaffolding were set up by an Ottawa company, and it now stretches 126 ft. from the ground to the tip of the steeple.
“We think it’s the tallest structure in the township,” parish council member Richard Holland said.
“Maybe the county,” West added.
The last time any work was done on the steeple was 1999, he recalled. York Steeplejacks of Lindsay did that, and they are no longer in business.
“Even eight or nine years ago, we noticed some water damage in the choir loft,” West said.
“We’ve been trying up and down to find the right company, the right contractor, the right people with acumen in restoring and rebuilding steeples and stopping the water ingress.”
Bishop William Terrence McGrattan got the ball started with a Toronto company he knew of. This company has undertaken a building-condition assessment that will help them ascertain what else may be needed down the road, Holland said.
“But this is a priority. Water has been coming in for years, and the tower has been leaning.”
They have seen this more clearly now that the upright scaffolding surrounds the steeple, West agreed.
“There was a point where the architect said, ‘Stop ringing the bell,’” Holland said.
Work is already being done to stabilize it. Once the metal cladding is removed, it’s easier to do that kind of thing with the skeleton of the steeple, he explained.
The first tentative estimate for this work was $902,000, but that’s for what Holland said is really more work than is being done right now.
“It cost $100,000 just to put the scaffolding up so, while it’s up, you want to do as much as you can. We probably are not doing everything we’d like, but the parish balked at $902,000,” he said.
They had a vote among the parish, and 73% objected to that figure. The alternative at that time was a rough estimate of $450,000 to take the steeple down.
Bishop Daniel Miehm, Bishop McGrattan’s successor, said he would endorse whatever the people want, West said.
Now that they’ve had a close-up look they have determined the steeple can be repaired, and that it can be done for almost the same budget as removing it.
Selected individuals have been invited to climb the scaffolding to see the work in progress, including Mayor John Logel.
“The timber is not in bad condition, which is amazing for 150 years,” Holland said — though certain timbers that have been removed do show the strain the steeple has been under.
The huge bell has been braced and stilled for the time being. It dates from the 1860s and still bears the name of its manufacturer — Meniely and Company of West Troy, New York.
“Under that bell, the water membrane wasn’t doing its job. They have put in a new membrane,” Holland said.
Paying for it all is another consideration, West noted. They had a pledge drive this spring within the parish, where everyone could make a one-time donation or contribute over a two-year period. This brought in $150,000 in pledges.
“I announced it last week that we could keep the steeple, so now the people may be more ready with a definite plan to help out,” he said.
A bank loan can be a resort, if necessary, but West finds some people believe the Bishop will pay these costs, or perhaps the Vatican. That’s not how it works, he said.
The diocese may own the building, but the parish covers the costs.
“We hope the wider community will become aware and come forward — people outside the parish area,” Holland added.
“I know that all of us, and the county, want to keep this,” West said.
“The whole area enjoys this steeple. We hope they’re appreciative of the work we are trying to do to conserve it.”
Holland said they’ve heard the work will be finished by the end of September.