The sharp spire of historic St. Peter's Episcopal Church pokes a needle hole in the sky above the patrician townhouses of Society Hill. For more than 160 years, the tower has withstood blizzards, hurricanes, summer scorchings, the timber-rattling vibes from bells ringing in its chest, and the corrosive gifts left by winged guests - pigeons, that is, not angels.

But like the bells, the years took their toll.

By the 1990s, says Gail Hauptfuhrer, the church was in "some disrepair." The congregation, which has never risen much above 200, raised the money to restore the main sanctuary and the parish house, says Hauptfuhrer, chairman of the church's property committee.

Experts found signs that the brick bell tower was beginning to split apart, but since there was no immediate danger of complete architectural excommunication, the church postponed the repair.

"It's a lot of work to raise the money and do the job," Hauptfuhrer explains.

Two years ago, another assessment showed the costs of the needed repairs had nearly doubled. "We decided that the time to do it was now or it would be even more expensive."

This month, after intensive grant-writing, earnest fund-raising, and five months of painstaking restoration, the centuries-old building at Third and Pine Streets is nearly perfect once again.

The names of all the entities involved are a mouthful.

Seeking $75,000 in matching grants from the Pennsylvania Museum Commission and Partners for Sacred Places, the church's nonprofit arm - the Historic St. Peter's Church Preservation Corp. - went to work. It formed a committee, the St. Peter's Church Strickland Bell Tower Restoration Project, which wrote the proposal. The church's members and neighbors were then hit up for donations, yielding about 100 pledges totaling $89,000.

Excerpts from the commentary by Joseph Fanelli, president of the HSPCPC: "We originally expected the project to cost $150,000. But when we received the bids from masonry and fenestration contractors, it was closer to $165,000. . . . They had discovered that the steeple has many rotted areas. . . . Remember when the one on St. Augustine's blew off onto the Ben Franklin Bridge? Imagine a church steeple floating through the air in Society Hill."

At the end of October, the congregation threw a party in the cemetery to celebrate the project's near completion. They put on a play beneath Osage orange trees that descended from seedlings sent back from the Lewis and Clark Expedition. And, respectfully, made merry around the graves of the portrait artist Charles Wilson Peale, George Mifflin Dallas, for whom the Texas city was named, and eight Native American tribal chiefs who had succumbed to smallpox after coming to the city to meet with George Washington.

More fund-raising, Fanelli says, probably will be needed.

This week, steeplejacks, clearly unburdened by vertigo, were clinging to the spire like Spider-Men in Timberlands, putting on a coat of primer.

Since cold weather has set in, they may not be able to finish the painting until spring.

Next up?

A three-year celebration of the church's founding, beginning next year - the 250th anniversary of the groundbreaking in 1758.

Contact staff writer Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com

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