LUNENBURG, Vt. (AP) – No one knew what would happen Saturday when the giant crane lifted the five-ton steeple off the First Congregational Church.

After all, it was 157 years old, and ravaged by storms, wind and neglect.

“We were worried about it just disintegrating,” said contractor Tim Betts, one of the volunteers involved. “We didn’t know if it would support its own weight.”

It did.

With the precision of a surgeon, crane operator Brian Clifford and his 94,000-pound crane lifted the spire up off the church and slowly lowered it to the grass below as camera-toting reisdents watched, setting the stage for a yearlong restoration preserving the icon of this small Northeast Kingdom town.

“I think it’s great they’re doing this,” said Maureen Marshall, 61, who was among them. “If the steeple went away, there would go Lunenburg, to me.”

Built in 1850, the one-story clapboard church – white, with green shutters – hasn’t functioned as a church since the 1950s, lapsing into little more than a decoration for the town green it overlooks. Locals say it’s one of Vermont’s most-photographed churches, its hilltop location and quintessential New England look making it a destination for weddings.

Over the years, restoration work has occurred on a piecemeal basis, with the Lunenburg Congregational Church Restoration and Preservation Society raising some money and volunteers raising some to replace the roof, fortify the foundation and restore one of its stained-glass windows.

A $5,450 state historic preservation grant paid for the shoring-up of the building’s floor joists.

“We just pick at it, piece by piece,” said Carol Wenmark, president of the Lunenburg Historical Society.

A more organized effort began in 2005, when a group of citizens calling itself the Top of the Common Committee, Inc., formed a plan to spend $300,000 to renovate both the church and the adjacent Town Hall building, which was built in 1849 and is in equally bad shape.

The goal is to return the church to the status it once held here, as a community gathering place or cultural center hosting concerts and other events.

The pace of work accelerated after an April nor’easter blew a section off the steeple, prompting fears that the steeple would be knocked off before it could be replaced.

“If nature takes it off, we’ll never get it back on,” said Larry Amadon, an excavation contractor who volunteered to help remove it.

The money still must be raised.

On Saturday, a tin bucket marked “Donations – old Congregational Church steeple restoration,” was placed on folding tables next to the gazebo on the town common, where ladies sold cookies and hot dogs and a hand-painted sign depicting a thermometer-style gauge measuring donations leaned against the gazebo.

Four 40-foot straps were hung from the crane and attached to bolts and a cluster of 6-by-6 timbers to hoist the 34-foot tall section off the church. Just before 10 a.m., the steeple was pulled up and away, a few small pieces of wood fluttering down and onto the roof.

The crane operator lowered it to the ground in a delicate three-minute move, then lifted it again to place it on a plywood platform where it will remain for the yearlong restoration effort, which will consist of woodwork replacement and painting.

“It’s a historic thing, as far as I’m concerned,” said Patsy Kovacs, 64, who watched.

Organizers hope to lift it back into place atop the church next summer in a ceremony.