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Restored steeple returns to sit atop First Parish Church

Part of $5 million repair project for old Dorchester church

The crowd in front of the historic First Parish Church stirred with excitement Tuesday morning as the newly renovated, 15,000-pound steeple was slowly lifted off the ground on Meetinghouse Hill.

As the wind quieted to a gentle breeze, a massive crane began to lift and then swing the ornate wood structure up over the Dorchester church. The dozens gathered in Rev. James K. Allen Park erupted in cheers.

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“Cameras!” Sandra Eddy, the church historian, shouted as she ran onto the street for a better view. Gasps echoed through the crowd as the steeple was gingerly lowered onto its rightful place, 150 feet atop the historic structure.

It was a moment many feared would never come.

“When it came down, I was so scared it would never go back up,” said the 57-year-old Eddy, who has been going to the church since 1965. “Honestly, I just want to cry right now.”

The parish, founded in 1630, removed the signature steeple in 2006, fearing that the deteriorating wood structure would fall through the roof and onto churchgoers.

The cash-strapped church asked for donations. It sold part of its historic silver collection, some of it created by early Colonial silversmiths like Paul Revere Sr., father of the American patriot.

And for nearly seven years, parishioners prayed, hoping the steeple would one day rise again.

Tuesday, their prayers were answered.

The effort is part of a $5 million church restoration project that will also include replacing windows, adding a fresh coat of paint, and some new woodwork, said the Rev. Arthur Lavoie

Before the crane lowered the steeple into place, Lavoie, clad in a safety harness and green hard hat, spoke from atop a cherry-picker and quoted the same readings used when the current church was dedicated in 1897. The previous church was ravaged by a fire in 1896.

JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF

Lirba Carrion watched as the steeple was restored.

“We raise this steeple to its perch at the top of our meetinghouse so that it may once again be a beacon of hope and welcoming for the people of Dorchester and all who see it,” he said.

Before the structure was raised, Lavoie put a copy of his invocation, a flash drive containing photos of the restoration, a list of the church’s members, and a letter from Mayor Thomas M. Menino inside a small time capsule attached to the spire.

Lavoie thanked Marr Cos. for donating the crane, as well as Murphy’s Specialties, a contractor that shaved their normal rates to help out the church.

But special thanks were reserved for 11 students from the North Bennet Street School’s Preservation Carpentry program, who donated their labor for the project.

The crowd broke out in applause when Lavoie thanked the students from the North End vocational school.

They began restoring the steeple in February and worked through rain, sleet, and snow, finishing the job in May, said Rich Friberg, the project manager and instructor at the school.

The complex project required the students to create new molds and replace several beams from the tower, among other tasks.

All told, it took the students several 16-hour days, nearly 800 cups of coffee, and 16,470 hours of work, he said.

“This is the largest project the school has ever done,” Friberg said. “It’s moving, to see it go up there.”

For the 11 students who worked on the project, it was also a bittersweet moment. The group grew close over the course of the project, which also served as their graduation requirement, said 36-year-old Andrew Hayes, who worked on the project.

Before they sent the steeple up, the students carved their initials into a section of the wood and left messages for loved ones.

“I can’t wait to drive down [Interstate] 93 and see it up there,” Hayes said.

As the crowd moved away to watch the steeple rise, parishioner Gerard Grimes stopped to look at the restored structure.

The 54-year-old Civil War reenactor with the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first black regiment recruited in the North, started attending services at the Unitarian church just a few months ago after learning that the regiment’s white commander, Robert Gould Shaw, was a Unitarian.

Returning the steeple, he said, is an important symbol of the First Parish’s warm embrace.

“I feel proud to be going to this church,” he said. “They welcome everyone, no matter what your religion, creed, race, [or] sexual orientation.”

Javier Panzar can be reached at javier.panzar@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jpanzar.
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