The congregation of South Congregational Church in Kennebunkport is marking the completion of restoration of the church steeple, clock and weathervane with a public celebration and rededication on Sept. 19. Tammy Wells Photo

KENNEBUNKPORT – South Congregational Church – primarily its steeple – has been visible to those on both sides of the bridge that joins Lower Village Kennebunk and Kennebunkport  since the building was constructed 197 years ago.

And with recent repairs to the steeple, the hand wound Aaron Willard Jr. clock and the weathervane, it remains a beacon in the community.

“It is certainly a symbol of this town,” said the Rev. Susan Townsley, pastor of South Congregational Church, who said many stop to take a photo. “The steeple rises above the river and the town and gives a sense of watching over and tending to and caring for the community.”

And it does, she noted. Both the church, as an entity, and members individually are involved in community organizations that serve the greater good, both financially and with time and talent.

“We’re part of the community,” she said.

The steeple, clock and weathervane are now restored, but this photo by those making repairs at South Congregational Church gives a glimpse of how it was, before the restoration. Courtesy Photo

Keeping community in mind, the congregation is inviting the public to a celebration of the restoration and rededication of the steeple on Sunday, Sept. 19. The event begins at 11:30 a.m. and winds down at 2:30 p.m.

There were prior repairs over the years, including in 2010. The most recent – and most extensive – began in 2019 and was completed a few weeks ago.

Limerick Steeplejacks, under the direction of Greg Sanborn, restored and upgraded the steeple while preserving its original architecture. Then came work by clock restorer David Graf on the historic original Aaron Willard Jr., Mark I clock from 1824 – said to be the only one still in public use. The weathervane, also restored, Townsley said, remains bit of a mystery. There are parts of the weathervane reminiscent of Kennebunkport’s shipbuilding heritage, but others say it symbolizes a sunburst, she said.

Volunteer property manager Steve Grabowski said the renovation that began in 2019 started with  the prospect of a painting project, but a close look at the condition of the steeple grew into a full-blown restoration of most everything from the bell tower floor on up.

And while he was not involved in the 2010 restoration effort, Grabowski recalled an event that preceded it. According to Grabowski, the pastor at the time, the Rev. Charles Whiston, had begun to pray during services one Sunday morning when a loud bang was heard outside. The finial had fallen from the steeple and smashed out the back window of a vehicle parked nearby. That prompted a closer look into the condition of the steeple. Much work was done at that time, said Grabowski, but then came the discoveries in 2019.

An employee of Limerick Steeplejacks is shown atop the roof of South Congregational Church, with the restored wethervane as a backdrop. Repairs to the steeple, weathervane and clock began a couple of years ago and are now complete. Courtesy Photo

The clock – which  Grabowski believes may be one of perhaps just half a dozen made, was  made by Aaron Willard Jr., son of Aaron Willard and nephew of Simon Willard, a family of clockmaking renown in Massachusetts in the 1700 and 1800s.

“Graf disassembled and reassembled it; he cut a hole in the floor of his shop so the pendulum could swing and rebuilt it, piece by piece,” said Grabowski, who visited Graf’s shop. “I felt privileged to be a part of it.”

There was additional work, including the restoration of the pillars at the front of the church.

Grabowski takes the long view.

“The philosophy  we have is (the church) is going to be here until the second coming,” he said.

And now, the work is done, and the church is hosting a celebration.

The congregation is welcoming the public to join them on Sept. 19 marking the completion of repairs and restoration.

There will be live music, an exhibit of photographs of the $285,000 restoration and a collection of art featuring the steeple made over the years. Hamburgers and hot dogs will be on the menu, and children can enjoy chalk art and a bounce house at the free public event.

Soon after the clock chimes at noon, master of ceremonies Tom Bradbury, of Kennebunkport Conservation Trust, will lead a brief ceremony, said Townsley. Donations may be made to the Steeple Fund or to Habitat for Humanity.

The church building was constructed in 1824, though the congregation traces its roots to 1838, “…. when 70 members “in good and regular standing” sought to be “dismissed along with the pastor” from First Church, which was founded in 1730 and still stands one and a half miles up North Street,” the church history states. “The new congregation, comprised of 11 men and 59 women along with Rev. Levi Smith, moved into the present structure as a meeting place for village residents along the river.”

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