Here’s the church, here’s the steeple

I grew up in the Central Valley of California, a few miles outside of a town of a thousand people. We lived across the street from the local church, though, and many of my childhood memories involve the church’s bell tower. For one thing, it rang shortly before services began each Sunday morning. That’s when the locals would know to head on over — on foot. And whenever a parishioner died, we’d toll the bell once for each year of their life. When we’d be out playing in the fields, we’d stop and count each clang.

My current congregation has a bell tower but I think it has a carillon in there. I was in Baltimore this weekend and saw a large church for sale. It looked like it may have once been Catholic but the bell tower had been redesigned with some recent vintage bare crosses helping hold it up. It was abandoned and looked like it had gone through a rough couple of decades. Then again, half of Baltimore looks that way!

But that messed up bell tower had been on my mind and then I came across USA Today religion reporter Cathy Lynn Grossman’s piece “Church steeples, aging out of fashion, meet their maker.”

It’s like I commanded the story from my personal wishes. If you are in any way interested in this topic, this is a great read, built around this lead anecdote:

Atop the tiny, white-columned 1842 church where Glen Likens was baptized, where he married his wife, where their children were baptized, where they still worship on Sundays, the steeple is rotting.

St. Mark’s Episcopal in Wadsworth, Ohio, hasn’t dared sound the 2,000-pound bell, which has a broken carriage and patched hammer, for a year. It may not sound again — unless a congregation numbering 58 souls in a good week can come up with $30,000.

Nationwide, church steeples are taking a beating and the bell tolls for bell towers, too, as these landmarks of faith on the landscape are hard hit by economic, social and religious change.

Steeplejacks, specialists in clambering up to build or repair the soaring structures, see weather-struck, maintenance-deprived steeples chipped, leaking, even tilting .

Architects and church planners see today’s new congregations meet in retooled sports arenas or shopping malls or modern buildings designed to appeal to contemporary believers turned off by the look of old-time religion.

I love how the story incorporates the various factors affecting bell towers and steeples. Grossman notes how church shoppers look for Google results more than steeples these days:

St. Mark’s, which has no website, has never needed to tell the 22,000 people in Wadsworth where it was because, Likens says, “everyone in town knows this is the church with the bell tower.”

But they do have a web site! And a very nice one at that.

The story includes technical details about repair and even some information from one steeple repairman. He notes that older church’s steeples are holding up just fine “built with top-notch lumber and a lot of heart,” but that church architecture from more recent decades involved shortcuts and cheaper lumber.

The piece includes information about those churches that coordinate with cell phone companies to lease bell towers for towers. We learn about one congregation in Northern Virginia that did that when it moved to a larger location. It now has a large cell phone tower/steeple. A megachurch across the street doesn’t have that same profile. And so this is how the piece ends:

No surprise, says architect Gary Landhauser, a partner with Novak Design Group in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who worked on nearly 30 churches in past 15 years.

“We have done a lot of church designs, but we haven’t done a steeple design in 15 years,” Landhauser says.

Today, he says, people want their church to look comfortable and inviting, “more like a mall.”

Subtle but provocative ending. And there’s nice little photo gallery, too.

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  • James Hageman

    Where in the Central Valley? I was raised in the Dinuba/Reedley area.

  • Mollie

    Terra Bella, baby! Well, outside of Terra Bella (a town of like 900 people …)

  • Sarah Webber

    I’m from Fresno, the big city. And since I left for college in 1993, I’ve never really lived there again. You may say in shock and horror, “You now live in New Jersey?” but I grew up in Fresno, which explains everything.

  • Mollie

    Sarah! Fresno? That’s awesome. I hope you saw the Carol Burnett spoof Raisins from back in the day. When I lived there in the early 1980s, my best friend said “I’m going to get out of here some day.” I didn’t even realize what she meant, but it’s all clear now.

  • John Pack Lambert

    This article from the Arizona Republic gives another reason for the decline of steeples.

    It is because building height is one of the points of attack of overbearing local residents. In Phoenix city code allows steeples to be of any height. The opponants of the LDS temple really have no case over the steeple height. However The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would agree to no steeple to appeas the neighbors if doing so was at all workable with temple design. Since temples are about focusing heavenward, having a steepless temple, at least in light of the overall building design, would not work.

  • kristy

    That last line of the article was really well placed. It keeps me thinking about the story, and how it’s more than just about architecture and building repairs. It invites people who care about these things to contemplate more.

  • tioedong

    until one lives in the third world, one doesn’t realize that the bells are also to tell time.

    Our bell in Africa rang out an hour before mass, to alert folks in the villages it was time to start walking, and then ten minutes before the service began, to alert those in the nearby shops it was time to stop shopping and come to church.

  • tmatt

    There goes YOUR invitation to inter-league O’s vs. Cards in Camden Yards.

  • Rev. Ted Staudacher

    Dear Mollie – wait till you see the web site designed for Mt. Zion, Castle Rock, CO! My friend Warren Jordan & his buddy are working with your Dad in its development. It promises to be a great interactive site to help put his congregation “on the map!” Your “Uncle Ted” keeps track of you & Mark via your Dad! Great article!

  • Sarah Webber

    My apologies, Tmatt, for staying off topic, but I have to share this great Central Valley joke: When I was young (during the end of the Cold War) a good friend of my father’s joked that he’d want to be in Fresno during a nuclear war because everything came to Fresno two years late!

    Blessings to all my Central Valley ex-pats!

  • Matilda, Children’s Ministry Academy

    I am a huge fan of church architecture and steeples. Much like you, some of my fondest memories of church involve the ringing of the church bell. Thank you for pointing your readers over to the article in USA Today. It definitely had some great information about the changes that have been happening when it comes to church architecture and bell towers.