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Steeple renovation nears completion

By Fran Gonzalez | Aug 01, 2019
Photo by: Fran Gonzalez Troy Union Church, in the center of town, shown July 24 with its new steeple, is on the National Register of Historic Places. A few inside renovations remain to be completed.

Troy — After a decade-long effort, the Troy Union Church steeple project is nearly complete, with the entire structure painted a few weeks ago, and only minor renovations inside remaining.

The bell tower on the 179-year-old church had been leaning back, toward the sanctuary.

"The steeple had the same tilt as the Leaning Tower of Pisa," said Norma Rossel, project coordinator and one of 12 members of the church. "Everyone was concerned about a collapse."

Rossel and several other church members began their journey in 2009, after determining more than just a coat of paint was needed to fix the issue.

Troy Union Church faced a challenge shared by many of Maine's rural communities with an older, historically significant building but lacking the resources to repair it.

After a 28-year career with Johnny's Seeds working in seed technology, Rossel retired in 2009, allowing her to devote more time to the steeple restoration effort. Her husband, Greg, chairs the restoration campaign.

In 2011, the church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, which made it eligible for restoration grants, and in spring of the same year, Preservation Timber Framers of Berwick conducted an in-depth assessment of the church.

According to PTF, the beam supporting the rear of the tower had sagged seven inches below the eave height. The company determined water was leaking through the flashing and dripping into the building, and over the years caused beams to rot. One image from PTC shows a pencil going right through one of the beams.

The problem was exacerbated by a 1950s-era suspended beadboard ceiling and insulation installed to the top of the large side windows. Intended to keep heat in, it closed off the top half of the sanctuary, including the balcony. The heavy iron hangers and wet insulation put downward pressure on the truss system, worsening the problem.

PTF came up with a plan to completely restore the modest 34-by-42-foot building in five phases, and in 2014, construction began inside, with the removal of the ceiling to expose the roof and tower framing.

Meanwhile, church members launched their restoration campaign. In all, the church received $88,000 in grants and raised an additional $150,000 from donations and fundraising to put toward the final $240,000 price tag.

Rossel said services were held in the church until 2014. When construction began in August of that year, the side windows were removed to enable workers to throw ceiling and insulation materials into a dumpster outside. Remaining items from inside the sanctuary were placed in storage.

"We quickly moved out of the church, and transported our piano to the B.B. Cook Clubhouse down the road, our church for now," she said.

The congregation worshiped at the clubhouse location up the street until Nov. 4, 2018, when they held their first service back in the renovated church. For the November sermon, 26 people came for a special musical service by Jody Moser, who sang in Latin.

On a really good week, Rossel said there can be up to 18 people in the congregation, but on bad weather days, it is not surprising to have only six parishioners.

"Sometimes we call when we have bad weather and say we are not going to have church today," she said. "It's difficult to get people here."

She said church is a "social thing" and that it is the only thing in town with the exception of a potluck dinner at the snowmobile club in Dixmont.

According to a PTF blog about the Union Church project, "Through connections made at a longstanding monthly potluck, Rossel found Marvin Daugherty, a caregiver and sword maker, and Scott Pfeiffer, a farmer at the Garcelon House, a cottage industry incubator. Pfeiffer recruited Adam Joy, who raises goats at his farm and has some timber-framing experience with an uncle at Red Suspender Timber Frames, to join the restoration effort."

The three men were provided with documentation, a repair plan, training and ongoing guidance. The crew was also paid a fair hourly rate that saved the church money, while spending fundraising dollars locally.

The steeple was taken down, bit by bit, with the exception of the two corner posts on the front of the tower. New trusses were cut from Eastern white pine, labeled and assembled at The Garcelon House on nearby Ward Hill Road, by PTF with help from the local crew.

The bell was carefully taken down with the aid of a 30-ton crane, with cheers from onlookers as it rang while being lowered to the ground.

"Viking Lumber cut the timbers and Scott, Adam, and Marvin cut out the mortise and tenon with mallets and chisels," Rossel said, with supervision from Scott Lewis and Jessica MilNeil of PTF.

Old newspapers from the 1920s were found, Rossel said, when students from Mount View High School and Unity College helped take down the Masonite panels with green vinyl wallpaper that covered the sanctuary walls.

"There really hadn't been much modernization," Rossel said.

Overall, a small, manageable to-do list still exists, including glazing and painting windows, additional wainscotting in the sanctuary, and the choir balcony needs railings and paint. Floors will be done at a later time, she said.

She credits Encore Leadership Corps for people over 50 with helping her learn about grant writing and networking.

"It's free education," she said. "And you get to meet many different people across the state who volunteer on projects."

Rossel also acknowledged the help of a friend, Judy Rock. "She knew a lot of the legal stuff and wrote the first article about the church," she said. "Now we can can make it a living building bringing people together."

Rossel is interested in working in the future on the Troy Grange building, which went on the National Register when the church did and holds a special place in her heart.

"I was married there," she said.

Check out Troy Union Church on Facebook for upcoming events and fundraisers.

Greg Rossel, chairman of the restoration campaign, said a railing and painting are still in store for the choir balcony. Until 2014, a suspended ceiling closed off the balcony area from the sanctuary room, shown here July 24. (Photo by: Fran Gonzalez)
A wooden staging area is placed over pews in Troy Union Church and windows are taped in anticipation of painting July 24. (Photo by: Fran Gonzalez)
An ornate organ in the Troy Union Church sanctuary July 24. A railing for the altar area will be installed in the future. (Photo by: Fran Gonzalez)
(Photo by: Fran Gonzalez)
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