2017-07-13 / Front Page

Parishioners Raise Funds for Steeple

By James Merolla


St. Paul Church's historian and parishioner Tim Somes shows the repaired yolk of the massive bell. (Photo by James Merolla) St. Paul Church's historian and parishioner Tim Somes shows the repaired yolk of the massive bell. (Photo by James Merolla) Every weekend, two octogenarians park cars in the lot of St. Paul’s Church, collecting $10 or $20 apiece to raise the approximately $20,000 still needed to finish rebuilding the historic tower steeple in front of the church.

Ernest Gibbons, 88, and John Jennings, 87, have spearheaded the effort with other volunteers for several years. The goal is to raise significant money by the end of summer to pay local contractors to finish rebuilding the steeple that has faced Washington Square since Thomas Jefferson was president.

As you walk down Marlborough Street and look up, you will see a web of scaffolding surrounding the first steeple ever mounted on a Methodist Church in America. It is the fifth phase of a master plan by architects Haynes/de Boer Associates and The Damon Company of Newport, who enacted the other phases, most notably the interior of the steeple.

This phase of the project began with a $150,000 grant from the van Beuren Charitable Foundation and the dedicated fundraising efforts of the congregation. Gibbons, Jennings and several of the other 55 parishioners have kept their weekends open in order to hang out in the open air of the parking lot that is so close to the White Horse Tavern that you can smell the beef and the ale.

They have raised $40,000 by persuading tourists to park their cars at St. Paul’s, although historian Tim Somes said that the majority of that money went to the church’s mission fund. They must raise $20,000 more to complete the contract with the builders.

“The grant paid for about two-thirds of the cost,” said Somes. “Over the last four years, the costs have gone up. I saw a lot of that when I was citing projects as an engineer in the Navy. It’s going to cost us a bit more than we originally estimated.”

Centrally located on Marlborough Street, St. Paul’s is considered an exemplary representation of early 19th-century post-Colonial architecture. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, it was consecrated in 1806 as the first Methodist church in America with a steeple and church bell. A temple front pediment underscores a prominent tripartite Palladian window. The cupola capping the steeple is a typical Federal touch.

Six years ago, The Damon Company completed the interior of the tower through a $125,000 grant from the Aletta Morris McBean Trust. The internal structure was shored up and bolstered, and a series of staircases and ladders was installed, which can take visitors from the second floor into the bell tower to, arguably, the best view of Newport Harbor from downtown.

The bell hadn’t rung for years, Somes said. The large wooden yolk that held it had broken and there were fears the bell would fall if pulled by a series of ropes.

“You can see the steel beam they put in,” said Somes. “The yolk, the wheel around it, the roping is all new. If another Category 3 hurricane had hit, it would have blown the steeple into the street.”

Whether viewed from City Hall, Washington Square or the waterfront, the distinctive copper cupola and weather vane stand out. The restoration will significantly enhance this prominent feature of Newport’s skyline.

By preserving the exterior integrity, parishioners contend that this proud old church will serve more generations, following in the footsteps of the forefathers who built, and lovingly preserved, this unique structure, often after tragic fires and violent ocean storms.

“These two big foundations made it possible to save this old steeple with their grants,” said Somes. “This will be done by Labor Day.”

The presence of St. Paul’s Church in the heart of Newport enables members to provide an array of services to the community. Spaces for recovery support groups, hot meal services, fresh produce distribution to the needy from the island’s Methodist garden, distribution of coats, a warm shelter on winter days, and meditation gatherings with spiritual leader Jaegil Lee are all part of why St. Paul’s is open seven days a week.

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