Angelic sounds

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Traditional Finnish concert to raise money for crumbling steeple

PARIS – The church congregation is hoping the lilting, angelic sounds of traditional Finnish harps will inspire donors to help save their steeple from crumbling.

The Deering Memorial United Methodist Church on Main Street has invited a group of kantele musicians to play a benefit concert at 2 p.m. Saturday to help raise money for steeple repairs. Yet, though the instrument is unusual for these parts, the players are mostly local.

“We’re the only group I know for sure in Maine, but I’m also confident that we’re the only group in the eastern part of the United States,” said Sarah Cummings-Ridge, the leader of the Maine Kanteles.

Cummings-Ridge, a Greely Middle School music teacher, got started on the kantele after receiving one of the lap-harps from her father eight years ago as a wedding gift. The kantele originated in Finland thousands of years ago.

Then, as part of a grant she received in 2000, Cummings-Ridge began offering local kantele workshops. One session was held at the Lutheran church in Paris and attracted about 30 curious people who either wanted to deepen their connection to their Finnish heritage or just pick up a musical instrument. Some of her students are now part of the 10-member troop, which has acquired a nonprofit status and plays for churches, cultural events, and wherever else they’re asked. They’re slowly getting more gigs, Cummings-Ridge said.

“Many people started with no musical experience whatsoever,” she said.

Most of the songs are traditional Finnish folk songs. But Cummings-Ridge, who said she’s 100 percent Finnish-American, has also adapted a few songs that might be more familiar to people here, like Edelweiss and Shenandoah.

“Our New Year’s resolution is to make a CD this year,” she said.

The money raised by ticket sales will go toward saving the church’s blocky steeple, which is badly in need of repair. Inside, leaking water is rusting an iron support beam and damaging the mortar that holds the large stones of the steeple together. The heavy stones are sinking, straining the walls and the foundation.

Since the campaign was announced last spring, the Rev. Walter Webb said the congregation has raised about $10,000, largely from public suppers and donations from church members. Nearly 90 people belong to the church, although on a given Sunday, about 30 to 35 people show up for the sermon.

A builder has said it will take about $800,000 to completely restore the roughly 100-year-old church and 95-year-old steeple, the latter being more urgent.

But this is not a daunting task for Webb, who said repairs will start this spring with the little the church has made. And he is optimistic the steeple will be saved.

“It’s quite a landmark in town and I think a lot of people don’t want to let it go without a fighting shot,” Webb said.

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