A group of locals has organized to raise more than $500,000 to repair the steeple of the Chestnut Street Baptist Church — a major landmark in the town's landscape.

In May, the group Save Our Steeple Fundraising Committee organized with a goal to raise $538,000 for the repairs. In a month's time, the church members have raised nearly $220,000.

"The steeple really is an iconic figure in the skyline," said Jeff Foltz, co-chairman of Save Our Steeple. "There are a lot of things wrong with it, but there are also a lot of things right about it."

Everyone who visits Camden stops on Main Street near Smiling Cow to take a photograph up the street with the church steeple in the background, Foltz said. Being the highest point in town, it is a beacon to sailors and even from atop Mt. Battie it is more visible than the harbor itself, he said.

The 125-foot steeple, including the 44-foot spire, is decaying, Foltz said.

Inspections over the past two years have revealed it is starting to lean and is one foot off at the top of the spire. In addition, there is mold and rot on the inside and damage to the paint and flashing on the outside. Two new beams anchored in concrete in the basement have already been added to mitigate the lean, Foltz said.

The scaffolding and staging alone is estimated to cost $120,000. A total of $85,000 has been donated from church funds, and there is another proposal to convert $100,000 from church assets toward the project. The committee also has applied for two grants and  expects to apply for a third.

"We think it's the gateway to the community, and the membership has decided it is so important to the community, we have appropriated as much money as we can and we are asking the community to think about how important it is," Foltz said, adding that the committee has received $30,000 in non-member contributions.

Church, steeple history

Chestnut Street Baptist Church has had a historic role in the Camden community.

Thomas Jefferson was president when the church was founded by nine members, while Maine was still part of Massachusetts.

During the War of 1812 the church's pastor helped save Camden from naval bombardment by a 36-gun British frigate, according to information from the Save Our Steeple PowerPoint presentation.

When Andrew Jackson was fighting in New Orleans,a frigate was comandeered and hid on the St. George River, sailing into Camden the next day. The pastor led the negotiations with the British, which resulted in their taking a Camden selectman hostage in Castine for three weeks, Foltz said.

The Civil War had been over for almost three years and Ulysses S.Grant was coming into office when the church redesigned the tower. The spire deteriorated and the church removed it during Grover Cleveland’s first administration in 1887. David Knowlton, a prominent Camden citizen, led the movement to make the tower the home of the official town clock and it has remained there ever since.

The church was without a spire until 1979 when 16-year-old Bill Young, a member of Boy Scout Troop 200, decided that rebuilding the spire (the top 44 feet) could help him obtain the rank of Eagle Scout, and the spire has remained since then.

This latest repair will bring the church's fourth spire, but the first time the steeple will be replaced, Foltz said.

"We invite residents to join in the quest to restore the steeple," he said.

Donations can be made out to CSBC Steeple Fund and sent to P.O. Box 833 Camden, ME 04843 or can be made online at saveoursteeple.com. Donation boxes also are located at the church and at Camden National Bank.

Courier Publications Editor Kim Lincoln can be reached at 236-8511 or by email at klincoln@villagesoup.com.