'Angel' pays for repairs to steeple Gift helps church he never visited

JACQUES KELLY

November 25, 1992|By JACQUES KELLY

The soaring steeple on a landmark Lutheran church in South Baltimore is being restored, thanks to a man who never sat in its pews.

Workmen discovered during an inspection earlier this year that the 1884 slate-clad spire atop SS. Stephen and James Evangelical Lutheran Church, Hanover and Hamburg streets, was in sorry shape. Steeplejacks strung massive ropes to a cross at the top of the 160-foot-high tower, hoisted themselves skyward and videotaped the damage caused by years of punishing wind and rain. The tower's flashing was breaking apart as chunks of slate crumbled.

The video revealed the extent of the damage to the church's main tower, which holds three loud bronze bells that ring out Sunday services, weddings and funerals.

"Christopher J.J. Witteman was never a member of this church, but his mother was. Over the years he told us, 'After I'm gone, I'll take care of you.' We never knew what this meant, but after he died, he left an estate of about $290,000 to the church," says the Rev. Lowell Thompson, who has been SS. Stephen and James' pastor for the past 32 years.

It was Mr. Witteman's legacy that permitted the congregation to undertake an extensive renovation, designed to keep the spire in sound physical condition.

"We're pretty much a blue-collar congregation. The people work hard here. They are very thrifty and frugal. They've served a lot of crab cake suppers to support this church," the pastor explains.

It seemed unusual for a man who never attended the church to will the bulk of his estate to it.

"He was a crusty, eccentric man who had very conservative views about life. He invested his money wisely," says Mr. Thompson, who remembers well the donor's frequent phone calls and instructions.

"Mr. Witteman would donate 15 Easter lilies and Christmas poinsettias to the church, then after the service, he'd phone in a long list of police stations and fire houses he wanted us to deliver the plants to. Then he'd call the police stations to check and see if we'd given them the lilies. It was a lot of work," says the pastor.

Earlier this year, the congregation decided to spend about $80,000 on stone, brick, woodwork and stained-glass window repair work. The women of the church held suppers to raise money. Individuals dug into their pockets and made financial pledges.

But when workmen began climbing the church's old brick walls, they discovered that the deterioration was far greater than original estimates.

One of the culprits was the slate quarried in the 1880s at Peach Bottom, Pa., along the Maryland-Pennsylvania border.

"Pennsylvania slate is not as good as Virginia or Vermont slate," says Ted W. Shaw, vice president of Shaw Steeple Jacks, the Johnstown, Pa., firm that has been working on the church for several months. He says Pennsylvania slate may last 100 years, Vermont slate will last 500.

It was a common practice in Baltimore to build geometric, eight-sided church steeples. The interior was framed with heavy timbers, while the exterior was covered with slate. Over the years, slate often shatters or the holding nails rust away.

Winged creatures -- definitely not angels -- have brought their share of trouble. Pigeons are an enemy of old buildings whose pinnacles provide ideal roosting cavities. The birds loved the church's belfry.

"Years ago my family patented a device called a Cat's Claw made out of stainless steel. Each foot of this material has 60 barbs, which keep a pigeon from roosting where we attach these strips," Mr. Shaw says.

"Pigeons can be nearly impossible to get rid of. Once they find a roosting place and hatch their young, they won't leave."

His firm is cleaning, painting and water-sealing the church tower, replacing a large section of ruined slate and flashing, and rebuilding many sections of worn limestone trim. A number of fine Victorian stained-glass windows are being restored by the Art Glass Crafters of Monkton.

And as a final touch, Pastor Thompson is exploring ways to light the tower and its cross at night as a "beacon in the heart of South Baltimore."

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