Birds gone, rehabbed York Christ Lutheran steeple stands
Hundreds of people gathered outside Christ Lutheran Church in downtown York recently for a rededication ceremony of the building’s steeple.
Another towering York steeple has been rehabbed and restored.
Last year, St. Paul Lutheran’s steeple received a facelift.
Now comes mother church Christ Lutheran, just north on George Street, and its 177-foot steeple.
Renovation of the 1815 steeple cost about $267,000.
And it didn’t come off without a hitch.
The project was delayed by nesting kestrels (see story and photograph below). But the Christ Lutheran congregation was patient with the small falcons. The steeple had been there from just after the War of 1812 ended. It could hold up a little longer.
A York Daily Record story on the project’s completion as well as a piece about the kestrels follow:
A male, fledgling kestrel and a female adult sit atop a clock in the Christ Lutheran Church steeple. The protected kestrels delayed work on the towering steeple. The kestrel is the smallest falcon in the state. It is also called the sparrow hawk because it feeds on sparrows. It’s voice? “Killy-killy-killy.”
From September, 2007:
After climbing several stories, each winding staircase a little shakier than the one before, some planks bowed beneath the Rev. Patrick Rooney’s heels as he continued toward the top of the spire.
As he scurried up and around the nearly 200-year-old stairs, his long robe didn’t seem to slow him down. He spoke in his native English accent about the history of the steeple that towers atop Christ Lutheran Church in downtown York.
Inside the steeple, the scent of the massive, old hand-cut beams mixed with smoldering candles that had been used during Sunday’s service far below.
As Rooney continued upward, bright sunlight filtered through a round window built near a wall made of dark wood and field stone that dates to about 1760.
More than 160 feet below, hundreds of people drank German beer, ate sauerkraut and danced to lively music for the church’s Oktoberfest celebration. But that event couldn’t be heard high above in a square room where light shined from the outside through each wall made of a massive clock face.
Suddenly a loud clang tolled from a time-honored bell. Rooney’s eyes got big.
“One o’clock,” he whispered. He then howled with laughter at the startling sound that had just passed.
“I love it!” he said.
Rooney, 59, was excited to discuss a challenging restoration project that will add at least 150 years of life to the 1815 church steeple.
“Isn’t it remarkable? I love the history,” he said. “This place has been a witness to the faith over the centuries . . . They built this thing by hand you’ve got to remember.
“We don’t intend to let this place deteriorate at all,” Rooney said. “This is the mother church of the city.”
After Sunday’s worship service, Rooney led a brief rededication of the steeple. Pam Kilgore, the church administrator, commented about the mild weather for the event.
“The lord has blessed us. He probably said, ‘You did a lot getting that steeple done, I’m going to give you a beautiful day,’ ” she said.
Other church members shared childhood memories of the steeple. York resident Dorothy Raffensberger, 83, was baptized in the church. She recalled walking to Sunday services with her parents and siblings from their home about 18 blocks away. Her mother would point to the steeple as they approached the church.
“My mom used to tell us, ‘If you don’t behave, that steeple is gonna wave,’ ” she said.
Three fledgling American kestrels ate a freshly caught mouse on the steeple’s ledge at Christ Lutheran Church, occasionally flapping their wings in the breeze, unfettered by the commotion below.
The tiny birds were unaware Thursday that they had temporarily halted a two-year plan to repair the steeple at 29 S. George St. in downtown York.
Judging by their size and the way they flapped their wings, the birds hatched this spring and are preparing to leave the nest, some 100 feet above the church’s courtyard, said Chad Eyler, Pennsylvania Game Commission wildlife conservation officer.
The birds, protected by federal and state laws, were discovered earlier this week by contractors working on the steeple.
Repairs will have to wait until the birds leave the nest, Eyler said.
“The church has been absolutely great. They are looking forward to getting the work done, but the birds are holding them up,” Eyler said.
The birds were first believed to be red-tailed hawks or peregrine falcons, which were nearly extinct in Pennsylvania because of pesticides. But, upon looking through binoculars, Eyler said, he could see that they clearly were kestrels because of their markings: They have two clear stripes on the head, the male’s blue wings and white-spotted belly.
“We got ourselves kestrels. Very cool,” Eyler said.
By last count, there were at least two adults and four juveniles roosting in three identifiable nesting holes above and below the church clock and bell tower.
Kestrels rarely nest in urban settings, preferring open areas, Eyler said. And it is the second rare find in the city. Farquhar Park has the state’s only location where the great egret, yellow-crowned night heron and black-crowned night heron can be found in the same place.
“York is kind of a neat spot,” Eyler said.
Construction crews were preparing to remove rotted wood when the kestrels were discovered.
Chuck Diirner, of C.J. Diirner and Sons Roofing, heard a screech and watched the mother bird fly in a cavity below the clock. After she left, Diirner looked inside and saw two babies peering out.
“The mother was flying around, making noise, telling the babies she was coming in to feed them,” Diirner said.
Diirner said he typically finds bees and pigeons. He once found more than 8,000 bats in a steeple in a job in Bainbridge, Lancaster County. This is the second time in 17 years, Diirner said, protected birds have halted a job. About three weeks ago, he found red-tailed hawks in a steeple in Leesport.
“I can’t believe it happened in two churches in a month,” Diirner said.
The kestrels attracted onlookers throughout the day, including employees leaving the rear door of the county administration center. The birds are a conversation piece among the congregation, said Pam Kilgore, church administrator.
The church has waited two years to repair the steeple, and waiting a few more weeks won’t hurt, she said.
“We all like birds. It’s a nice added feature,” she said.
Kilgore was among the crowd who took some time to take a peek at the baby birds through a spotting scope set up in the courtyard.
“Look at them,” she said. “They are adorable.”