YARMOUTH (AP) – The First Universalist church is typical of traditional New England houses of worship with its white clapboard siding – and a steeple that’s rotten to the core.

The church was warned that water deterioration had eroded support beams to the point that a powerful wind could topple the 45-foot spire. So the church removed the steeple, and it now resides on the lawn, where it’ll stay until there’s enough money to fix it.

The church, built in 1860, is hardly alone.

Across the country, steeples that look perfectly normal on the outside are rotting away on the inside. Hundreds have undergone repair in recent years, and even more are in need.

But with many congregations shrinking, raising money is a difficult task. It will cost an estimated $330,000 to fix the First Universalist steeple.

A couple of weeks before the steeple was removed last month, Ken Nye, president of the church’s board of directors, stood in the belfry and peered up at the spire. Next to Nye was a bell that was given to the church in 1861 by one Charles Gumm of London. Across the street stood the First Congregational Church, which removed and repaired its steeple 15 years ago.

The congregation never considered eliminating the steeple, a symbol of the congregation’s faith and a landmark in this coastal town.

“I think steeples are symbols of what this country was founded upon – and that’s religious liberty,” Nye said.

Thousands of steeples are in similar need of attention across the country, said Tuomi Forrest, assistant director of Partners for Sacred Places, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that promotes preservation and stewardship of religious properties.

Steeples are vulnerable because they take a beating from the wind, rain, snow and even lightning. Pigeons make their homes in them. And because church spires are difficult to reach, they are often neglected.

“Certainly in New England, the white clapboard church with the steeple and town green is emblematic of the region,” he said. “So it’s more striking when the town church loses its steeple.”

Historic Boston Inc. has a program called the Steeples Project that has helped more than 50 churches and synagogues in Boston in the past 12 years. In Vermont, some 40 preservation grants have been awarded since 1994 for steeple work, according to Paul Bruhn, executive director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont.

Resurrecting steeples can breathe life into communities, Bruhn said.

In Brandon, Vt., a steeple restoration served as a catalyst for townspeople to come together and launch a community arts project, open an art gallery, construct a park and revitalize the downtown, he said.

“It was the steeple that showed how a community revitalization can be stimulated by a single project,” Bruhn said.

But raising the funds to fix the problems can be a monumental task.

In Dover, N.H., the 177-year-old First Congregational Church removed its steeple in 2002 and renovated it over 18 months at a cost of $600,000. It can be hard to justify spending such lofty sums, said the Rev. David Slater.

“We had to say to ourselves: This is a symbol of our faith. Therefore, we’ll spend this money that doesn’t give one square foot of Sunday school space, but as a witness to our faith we felt it was worth investing in,” he said.

In Portsmouth, N.H., a freak wind storm in August toppled a new spire that was being installed on the landmark North Church. The accident prompted about $100,000 in new contributions for the restoration project.

Not all churches are so fortunate.

In South Portland, Maine, the First United Methodist Church removed its steeple nine years ago because of structural damage. Today, the church is still without a steeple, struggling to raise the funds to replace it.

In Yarmouth, the steeple that once graced First Universalist Church now rests on the front lawn on Main Street – a constant reminder of its plight.

The church, with its 150 members, has launched a fundraising campaign to cover the repairs, Nye said. It might take one year or five years to raise the money, he said, but he’s confident it can be done.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that the steeple has lasted this long, Nye said.

“It’s amazing to me we’ve gone 150 years with painted wood,” he said.

The group Maine Preservation has listed steeples and towers as an endangered resource. Next year, the group will announce a new matching grants program to create a fund dedicated to steeple restoration, said the agency’s executive director, Roxanne Eflin.

“We all feel this deeply,” Eflin said. “It’s deeply connected with New England villages and our heritage here, why we exist, why we’re here in the first place.”

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