Cuyahoga Falls -- Its iconic spire has risen heavenward for more than 180 years, but structural deterioration means the steeple of Pilgrim United Church of Christ, 130 Broad Blvd., must be replaced. Rumored to be a stop for escaping slaves on the Underground Railroad, the church was also the worship place of city founder Elisha N. Sill. Replacing the city landmark will be an expensive undertaking which Pilgrim's congregation cannot afford, according to its senior pastor, the Rev. Kirk Bruce. That's why the church recently went public with its plight, bedecking the steeple with signs asking the community to contribute to the restoration project.
Pilgrim, a Greek Revival building, was constructed in 1847 and appears on the National Register of Historic Places. However, its 115-foot steeple has been leaking "for probably five to 10 years," according to Bruce, who's been at Pilgrim since 2000. He says the steeple has been struck by lightning twice and subsequently repaired. "But with time and with weather and old age, the copper up on the roof has begun to leak," he reports. Last July, Bruce had just left town on vacation when a storm blew through the city, knocking a piece of wood off the back of the spire.
"Fortunately, nobody got hurt," the pastor says, but that incident became a catalyst for action among the congregation. Church members who had been pondering, 'What are we going to do?' all of a sudden said, 'We have to address it now," Bruce recalls.
The church has approximately 200 members, with about 90 of those attending worship services on Sundays. At $200,000, "the cost of repairing the steeple is more than our annual budget," Bruce says. "That's the reason why five years ago the church didn't just say, 'Fine. Let's go ahead and fix it.'" The steeple restoration will get underway May 1, according to Bruce. While the framework under the steeple will remain because "it is solid," he says everything on the exterior -- copper and wood -- will be replaced. Frost Architectural Preservation Inc. of Cleveland has been hired to do the work. A company spokesperson says Pilgrim's steeple will be among the oldest the company has restored. The end result should look similar to what's there today, he adds.
Pilgrim is employing a multi-pronged approach to fundraising. First, it has turned to its congregation. "We have received some significant contributions in that manner," Bruce says. "However, we're not even close to the $200,000 [mark]." For that reason, it's seeking backing from businesses and individuals in the community, too. "The church has been a landmark in the Falls community," Bruce says, adding, "It may be the oldest building; if not, it's got to be close. It is the oldest church building." Pilgrim is also working with city officials in applying for a federal grant.
Roberta Holzapfel, a member of Pilgrim's Steeple Committee, says there are three ways for people to donate to the cause: (1) By visiting any Westfield Bank branch in Northeast Ohio; (2) sending a check to Pilgrim United Church of Christ, 130 Broad Blvd., Cuyahoga Falls 44221 and specifying the donation is for the steeple fund; or (3) Via the church's website, pilgrimcf.org, and click on the link for the crowdfunding site.
"This (Pilgrim Church) has been a place for the people of God for almost 200 years," Bruce says, and a new steeple will cement its commitment to continue to be so for centuries to come.