Conewago Chapel steeple worker wondered if he’d ever get up there: Now, ‘Here I am’

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The 2,000-pound bell Conewago Chapel bell as contractor measures the church belfry. The steeple of the mother church for Roman Catholics in York and Adams counties is undergoing renovations. (See additional photo below). Background posts: People of varying religious groups founded York County, Abe, Gwyneth passed through Porters Sideling and In bucolic countryside, royal body sat in the sun.

York’s Christ Lutheran is the mother church for worshippers in that Protestant denomination in York and Adams counties.
The Codorus Church of the Brethren near Loganville is the founding Church of Brethren in York County.
But the hearth for York/Adams’ United Churches of Christ, United Methodists and Roman Catholics Catholics came further west in present-day Adams County. Adams was part of York at the time these first churches were planted.
Here are some facts on those early, out-west churches, according to “Never to be Forgotten”:


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Scaffolding surrounds the 142-foot-high church steeple, site of a $600,000 renovation.
- Christ Reformed Church (German Reformed, now United Church of Christ), organized in 1747 near present-day Littlestown. A section of its 1798 building stands today.
- Rock Chapel (Methodist), constructed in 1773 near Heidlersburg and rebuilt in 1849.
- Conewago Chapel (Roman Catholic), built in 1787 near present-day McSherrystown.
The top-most part of Conewago Chapel is undergoing a facelift, as the following story in the York Daily Record/Sunday News (8/7/08) states:

The spire of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus rises from the corn rows as you drive north on Chapel Road over the south branch of Conewago Creek.
Until at least December, that soaring tower on a hill outside Hanover is obscured by a Tinker-Toy configuration of scaffolding.
The 30-ton system of platforms, horizontals and verticals encircles and braces the steeple as contractors renovate the exterior and sheath it in copper and aluminum.
The 136-year-old steeple was showing its age: Nails were rusting and copper corners puckering.
Engineers determined the church structure was sound, but pieces of tower molding had blown off in high winds.
“We’ve maintained it, but the copper was nearing its shelf life, and the wooden boards over time have been loosened,” said the Rev. Lawrence McNeil, pastor of the church in Conewago Township, Adams County.
“They were not terribly rotten but, over 150 years or so, they reached a point where we need to do some major repair work.”
The experts said encasing the siding and gingerbread molding with aluminum would look the same but preserve the exterior for decades and eliminate the need for maintenance.
This spring, parishioners put off a long-planned air-conditioning project to invest in the exterior project. It’s estimated to cost $600,000 — $110,000 for the scaffolding alone.
Contributions from parishioners and the community will shoulder the bulk of the cost, he said.
“We plan to be here a couple more centuries, so we take the time to do it right,” McNeil said.
As they renovate, the contractors can’t forget the story of what locals call Conewago Chapel.
“We’re trying to keep everything exactly as it was because of the history,” said J.D. Miller, the project manager for Donald B. Smith Roofing in Hanover.
The parish dates to at least 1741, when a Jesuit priest built the first chapel near the basilica’s site at Chapel and Edgegrove roads.
As the Colonial-era mother church to Pennsylvania Catholics west of the Susquehanna, the basilica counts the parishes of York, Hanover, McSherrystown, Abbottstown, New Oxford, Carlisle, Chambersburg and others as spiritual daughters.
The present stone church, built in 1787, had a cupola until a pair of New Oxford men built the spire in 1872. The wooden cross atop the spire towers nearly 150 feet above the ground.
Inside the tower, the wooden beams are fit together with wooden pins. The entire tower rests on a rocking-chair-like substructure designed to give slightly in high winds, Miller said.
“You can feel the steeple move when you’re up there and it’s blowing,” said Mark Smith, a carpenter with Smith Bros. Construction in Hanover.
Last month, contractors found wall boards in the bell tower filled with signatures left by painters of yesteryear – signed and dated by men as early as the late 1800s as they repainted the tower and steeple. The crew added their own names for posterity.
Sheet-metal worker Brent Carbaugh has done work on lesser steeples but nothing this large, detailed or historic.
“Ever since I started (on steeples), I looked at this and thought, ‘I wonder if I’ll ever get up there,’” said Carbaugh, the project foreman and a Catholic baptized, confirmed and educated at the basilica.
“Here I am.”
HISTORY
The parish of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus dates to at least 1741, when the Rev. William Wappeler, a Jesuit priest, built the first chapel near the basilica’s location at Chapel and Edgegrove roads.
The oldest part of the current church dates to 1787, the same year the Constitution was signed in Philadelphia.
As a mission church, the Jesuit missionaries cared for Catholic immigrants west of the Susquehanna River.
Conewago Chapel is believed to be the oldest stone Catholic church still in use in the United States.
It was named a basilica, the highest honor bestowed on a Catholic church building, in 1962 by Pope John XXIII.
Conewago Chapel was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.

About Jim McClure

Editor of the York Daily Record/Sunday News, ydr.com and its many digital products. East Region Editor, Digital First Media. Journalism/history blogger: yorktownsquare.com. Author or co-author of seven York County, Pa., history books.
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