Steeple's return to glory


From downtown, you can see the grand old steeple of St. Michael's Roman Catholic Church jut above Lombard and Wolfe streets in East Baltimore.

More than a century ago, its copper shone in the sun. Then, oxidation and time took their toll. Now, efforts are under way to return the steeple to its former glory.

A crew of steeplejacks is at work, tearing out old wood and faded copper and putting on 5,000 square feet of new copper that by January will have the steeple gleaming as it did in the 1850s.

"We want it to last another hundred years," said the Rev. James Gilmour, a Redemptorist priest who has served at St. Michael's since August 1999 and puts the steeple repair at the top of a wish list that would cost thousands more than the church has on hand.

The steeple renovation started in the summer in response to concerns that pieces of the old copper were peeling away and could fly off in a high wind. The Redemptorist order set aside about $300,000 for the job.

The work is being done by Shaw Steeple Jacks Inc. of Johnstown, Pa., which has worked on several area churches, including Corpus Christi Roman Catholic Church in Bolton Hill and Saints Stephen & James Evangelical Lutheran Church in South Baltimore. Early last week, John B. Shaw, the third generation of his family to take up the trade, could be found on the narrow, windswept catwalk alongside the St. Michael's belfry, about 150 feet above the street.

"I started helping my pap when I was about 15," said Shaw, 38. "I grew up as a little kid watching these guys. ... I couldn't wait to do this."

Freddie Estay is one of the guys Shaw watched as a child. He was here in 1970, refacing the clocks and putting gold leaf on the cross that once stood atop St. Michael's, and he did it without scaffolding. Back then, steeplejacks often used nothing more than ropes, ladders and boatswain's chairs.

Estay, 58, remembers popping his head out of a trap door near the apex, tossing a lasso around the steeple, pulling himself out and getting to work. Today, he can stand on the scaffolding around St. Michael's and point out the churches he has worked on.

"I never thought I'd be on one again that I did 31 years ago," he said.

The ground-to-steeple scaffolding, which looks like a giant jungle gym, took months to build. Early on, engineers realized the church's roof could not support the tremendous amount of steel needed to reach the pinnacle 200 feet above the sidewalk. So, they slipped 1,100 feet of 4-inch-by-6-inch oak timber into the clock tower to support huge steel I-beams. A crane was brought in to hoist 13 tons of steel through the open clock faces to work crews who gently eased the I-beams into place. The final sections of scaffolding went up last week.

Initially, the plan was to replace the copper and the cross. But other ideas came to mind, such as fixing the clock faces and the bells.

"We didn't even consider it until we put up the scaffolding and said, 'Gee, it would be a shame not to,' " said Gilmour, 55.

The five bells of St. Michael's have not sounded over East Baltimore in years. Ron Balcer, who rang the bells as a young parishioner in the late 1940s, remembers them well. He even rang them a few times before the church installed an electric system to ring the bells in 1952. (That system no longer works).

"You can't replace that feeling of jumping on the cord," said Balcer.

They are magnificent bells, each with a name - St. Michael, St. Mary, St. Joseph, St. Alphonsus and St. Clement. Together, they weigh 10,150 pounds. The largest, the 4,300-pound St. Michael, has an inscription in Latin that reads: "St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle, that we may not perish in the dread judgment."

McShane Bell Foundry Co., then of Baltimore (now in Glen Burnie), cast the bells 111 years ago. One can only imagine what music the five bells must have made, tolling the Angelus, each sounding its note.

"The people of the parish would love to have that back again," said Gilmour. "I think nowadays the neighbors might complain."

Balcer said he wasn't so sure. "Oh, I think you might be surprised," he said.

A small capital fund of a few hundred dollars is on hand to repair the clocks and bells, but it is not nearly enough. However, St. Michael's will get a new cross. The one that Estay gold-leafed a generation ago is gone. No one seems to know what happened to it.

Founded in 1852 as a mission of St. Alphonsus Church on Saratoga Street, St. Michael's was established at Pratt and Regester streets, to serve the city's German Catholic immigrants. The cornerstone for the present building was laid in 1857. It is a huge church, seating 1,100. There is a high, soaring ceiling with paintings of Jesus Christ and the 12 disciples, beautiful stained glass windows and pews of rich, dark wood.

Its first pastor, St. John Neumann, was canonized in 1976. In 1900, the congregation numbered almost 10,000. Membership remained high through the first half of the 20th century.

"You had to have a ticket for midnight Mass," said Gilmour. "The place was packed to the gills."

Services are still well-attended. Today's numbers reflect the changes in the neighborhood. St. Michael's is now the principal church for the Hispanic community in the Catholic archdiocese. About 650 to 700 people attend the Spanish-language Mass, said Gilmour, and 150 attend the Mass where English is spoken.

"We don't speak German anymore. We speak Spanish," said the bilingual Gilmour, who honed his Spanish during a 20-year stint in Paraguay.

Also on Gilmour's repair wish list is the imposing 11 1/2 -foot statue of St. Michael the Archangel that stands just inside the church's front door. Dedicated in May 1873, it was carved in Pittsburgh from sanded walnut. For years, the avenging angel with his sword held high stood in a niche 60 feet above the entrance. Church members had it taken down several years ago, after wood chips began falling from the statue. Repairing it would cost money St. Michael's does not have.

Regardless of what happens with the wish list, St. Michael's will celebrate the steeple's renovation's, said Gilmour. And on Sept. 29, 2002, the feast day of St. Michael, it will celebrate its 150th anniversary. Maybe by then, the bells of St. Michael's will ring again.

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