By Debbie Oglenski
The Catholic Weekly
PORT AUSTIN — The steeple at St. Michael Church is a landmark in this Thumb town.
A year ago, that landmark was in trouble.
“The cross was in danger of falling,” said Fr. Andrew Booms, pastor since 2008. “We had to do something to prevent injury to person or property.”
When Fr. Booms arrived there was some angst over the future of the building but there was also a moratorium on any maintenance. A year later, the moratorium was lifted and a search was launched to find a company to inspect the historic 140-year-old church.
The inspection was completed in the spring of 2010 and the cross at the top was removed during the process because it was deteriorating. The inspectors also found that 3-4 feet at the top of the steeple was rotting. A proposal was compiled to stabilize the steeple and replace the 7-foot cross.
Three bids were received ranging from $23,900 to $70,000. The diocesan building committee approved the project in mid-September and in early October a deal was sealed with Beyer Roofing of Saginaw.
Over three weeks during November the company cleaned the shingles; tore down and re-built the top portion of the steeple; created a new base for the cross; repaired, repainted and reinstalled the cross; replaced shingles that had fist-sized holes from a lightning strike in the 1980s and those shingles with woodpecker damage; re-fashioned the copper ridge cap and replaced its missing pieces; fixed the dormers and removed and designed new decorative crosses; covered the louvers with aluminum; added new bug and bird screens; caulked; weather-sealed; restored other decorative features and installed fishing line to prevent vultures from using the steeple as a perch.
Fr. Booms said work was paid from the parish funds. He asked parishioners to give one extra contribution quarterly to help meet the parish needs, explaining that with an old building there are other issues that will have to be addressed.
“That has been very successful,” Fr. Booms said. “The community loves this church building and people want to see it maintained.”
There are a number of other issues that are not obvious when you walk into the church. The church has a “rubble” foundation of rocks and dry mortar, some of which has been replaced, but some of which needs attention. An engineering study has shown that in the underpinning of the building there are timbers that are showing signs of rot, the roof needs replacing and there are trusses that may need to be repaired or replaced. The electrical system needs to be replaced; the boiler is from the 1960s and handicap accessibility is not up to par.
“We remain in dialogue with the diocese as to the best course of action for the community and the diocese for maintenance of the building,” Fr. Booms said.
Fr. Booms also works closely with a parish building/advisory committee and, in information gathered so far, the work may be done for less cost than the engineering study predicted.
Fr. Booms plans to continue to talk with Bishop Joseph R. Cistone on the church building’s needs.
“The community is attached to the building and it has served the community well for 140 years,” Fr. Booms said. “This wooden building has a feeling and a character unique to structures of its time.
“As a community we recognize that the safety and comfort of our people is of primary concern. We remain open to direction from the diocese and are hopeful that maintenance of this building will extend its useful service to our community well into the future.”