TOWNSEND -- White clapboard churches with steeples stretching up into a blue sky are an expected sight in old New England towns. Keeping these iconic buildings safe, attractive and up to snuff is an ongoing task.
The First Baptist Church in West Townsend was built almost 190 years ago on the shores of the Squannacook River. The location was perfect for the full-immersion baptisms the church still practices. With the advent of running water, a baptistry was installed behind an enclosure beside the alter in the 1940s.
The steeple is a clock tower under a bell tower topped with a once-white spire. Extensive work has been done on the interior and exterior of the church over the years, and it is time to complete the repairs above the main building.
The project is already well underway, said Rev. Kevin Patterson. The roof has been replaced, the tower repaired and the clock is getting close to completion.
The slate roof was replaced six years ago with architectural shingles. Underneath, the slate workers found a layer of cedar shakes like those that surround the spire. The shakes are probably original to the building, he said.
While some of the work is pretty straightforward, other jobs require arcane knowledge.
The clock tower, for instance, sits on top of the roof. Mark Haynes, a post and beam specialist from Ashby, rebuilt the shaky structure. "He's brilliant," Patterson said.
The respected builder had a close call while reconstructing the exposed section.
The work was just buttoned up when a microburst tore through. If the work had not been completed, the tower might have fallen. If someone had been outside working on the tower, they might have been blown off. "We were thankful God allowed us to do that in time," Patterson said.
George Burgess, a steeplejack from Maine, worked on the clock tower roof which had rotted at the corners. The third-generation expert has "a lot of accumulated knowledge in the family," Patterson said, "He's worth bringing down for his expertise."
Burgess will be returning, hopefully later this year, to replace the shakes on the spire. Patterson estimated the work on the steeple could cost up to $20,000. As with any old building, other faults might be exposed once the project is begun.
"Burgess has a sense of responsibility," Patterson said. If anything is wrong, he is the only one that will see it. It falls to the craftsman to let the church know the condition of the roof and substructure. "We have to pad his budget a little bit," the pastor said.
Work on the clock, which was donated by Charles Warren of Boston in October, 1834, is also underway. The numerals on the dials have been regilded, and the hands have been reproduced and gilded by John Rives from Worcester.
"They need to be perfectly balanced," Patterson said of the hands that are about 3 feet long. Rives also worked on the clock mechanism high in the tower, which had been maintained over the years and was in pretty good shape, Patterson said.
Two separate actuators control the clock. One simply makes the clock hands turn. That part is all ready to go. A reasonably athletic person needs to climb the tower once a week and wind it.
It is the second actuator that is giving the church pause. The current controller causes the bell to ring every hour throughout the day and night. The church is looking to replace it with one that will ring only during the day.
Once the bell begins ringing again, it could be difficult for neighbors to adjust to the chimes if the bell sounded once an hour all night long. "We're not in the business to cause people not to work," Patterson said.
He would like to see the church buy a mechanical actuator, rather than a computer-based controller. Patterson is looking into equipment built in England because the churches there have already addressed the need to ring bells only at certain times of the day.
Paying for the work on the old building is expensive, and the church has received donations and grants.
A private donor gave the replacement windows for the lower level. Richard Whitney, a clock repairman, left the church a bequest of $15,000 to repair the clock. Whitney was not a member of the church, he was "just a nice neighbor" who helped keep the clock running, Patterson said.
In addition to the $20,000 estimated to repair the steeple, the remainder of the work to the clock, including installing the hands and purchasing a new actuator, will be an additional $10,000.
The church hopes to get a matching grant to cover part of the expense. Donations can be made to the "Steeple and Clock Fund" by mailing a check to the First Baptist Church of West Townsend, 461 Main St., West Townsend, MA 01474.