Metro

THOMAS FARRAGHER

When a steeple is your skyline: Eaton, N.H., rallies to save the iconic Little White Church

The Little White Church has raised $152,000 for its reconstruction fund, enough to pay for a new steeple. The Eaton, N.H., church is hoping to raise another $30,000 to finance unanticipated repairs.
Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe
The Little White Church has raised $152,000 for its reconstruction fund, enough to pay for a new steeple. The Eaton, N.H., church is hoping to raise another $30,000 to finance unanticipated repairs.

EATON, N.H. — They are emblems of New England in autumn.

The apple and the witch. The pumpkin and the hayride. And, across the kaleidoscopic landscape of northern New England, the stately white church spire, poking through colorful treetops, soaring toward the heavens.

Except here, where the Little White Church — for generations a magnet to photographers drawn to its breathtaking perch on Crystal Lake — sits truncated, its roof leaking, its support beams in decay, its steeple gone.

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“The Little White Church in Eaton is our skyline,’’ Kate Armenio told me the other day from behind the counter of the Eaton Village Store, which she runs with her husband. “It defines the town.’’

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“It’s the most photographed church in all of New England,’’ said Thaire Bryant, the town moderator who served as the church treasurer for five years. “It is the town. The church is on our town seal. It was given to the town’s people on the condition that it remain a cultural, educational and religious center.’’

Now, that wounded little church is the talk of the town — 14 miles southeast of Conway — and the region, really. And so is the resolve to repair and preserve the landmark to ensure its future is as sturdy as its 140-year history.

Rot threatened the Little White Church.
Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe
Rot threatened the Little White Church.

Its bell has tolled for worshippers now buried in the graveyard next door, for brides and grooms, for soldiers during world wars, for hostages released from captivity, for the 200th birthday of the nation which has received its prayers.

Against the backdrop of all that rich history, the little church’s troubles began late last year in the most banal manner.

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Something overhead didn’t look quite right.

Thomas Costello, a local builder and former church president who organizes the church’s Christmas pageant each year, was asked to investigate cracks in some horizontal boards on the spire.

“After I got the staging up and we could actually get our hands on the spire, on all the shady parts of the spire the wood was 100 percent saturated with water,’’ Costello said. “It was just holding the water like a sponge.’’

Steeplejacks were called. None responded. Church leaders conferred and resolved to restore the church. Community support was strong, naturally. The church is the heart of this place.

“We were being very particular about everything about it,’’ Costello said.

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When I climbed into the truncated belfry with Costello the other day, he resolved to rebuild the spire by next summer. The belfry will be fashioned from hemlock. The old spire was made of old-growth spruce. The new one will be made from a different species.

“The stands of spruce around here are not big enough,’’ Costello said. “The parts will be built on the ground. And then they’ll be raised up.’’

That will be cause for a big celebration in Eaton, whose population is about 390, and whose gossip circuit is as fast as high-speed Internet service.

Thomas Costello, a local builder, says he is drawn to restoration projects of the kind that’s needed at the Little White Church.
Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe
Thomas Costello, a local builder, says he is drawn to restoration projects of the kind that’s needed at the Little White Church.

When I approached a swimmer emerging from Crystal Lake just before sunrise the other morning, I had not introduced myself before Maury McKinney looked at me and my notebook and said: “You must be that reporter from The Boston Globe.’’

McKinney, 59, said he has been swimming in the lake for 34 years, holding a personal worship service of sorts in sight of the little church.

“The sun hits the steeple at a certain angle and it casts a golden glow on the water,’’ he said, toweling off after a 1.4-mile swim. “I think there’s a religiosity in all of us. It raises your sights to the heavens.’’

And those behind the steeple’s reconstruction said they are determined that those with eyes cast heavenward will soon again see the emblem of this village.

Joyce Blue, the church’s treasurer, said the news of the steeple’s demise at first left people “gobsmacked.’’

“It was presenting itself as a problem of such magnitude that we were at a loss at how to deal with it initially,’’ she told me the other morning as I talked with church leaders in the front pews of the church.

An insurance claim was denied because the rot was deemed a long-term problem. Leaders considered seeking a $150,000 loan, but soon tabled the idea after considering the church’s yearly net income is only about $1,000.

The church sits on the edge of Crystal Lake.
Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe
The church sits on the edge of Crystal Lake.

But then something wonderful happened.

Supporters of the church, where remnants of its original carpet and its first weathervane are housed behind glass in the basement, began to raise their voices — and open their wallets.

There have been large benefactors. There have been modest supporters.

One woman sent a note with her contribution, recalling her days in the shadow of the church in the 1950s, when she would ride her black horse down to the waterfront.

Generosity like that, fueled in part by fond and faithful memories, has poured $152,000 into the church’s reconstruction fund, enough to pay for a new steeple. The church is hoping to raise another $30,000 to finance unanticipated repairs.

Dana Cunningham, a church board member, wants to raise money for the Steinway piano that sits in the church’s sanctuary and needs repairs to its sound board and pin block.

“When we realized that the steeple was in trouble I was crestfallen, because I had been fund-raising for the full restoration of the Steinway,’’ she said. “You’ve got to have a roof before you can have a restored Steinway so it doesn’t leak on the Steinway.’’

Her church colleagues nodded in agreement when Cunningham said walking into the Little White Church is like walking into a communal embrace.

“It brings our gaze upward and that to me is a posture of gratitude,’’ she said. “It’s a reminder to lift up your eyes and be grateful. We need as many points of light and inspiration that we can find. The church draws people together. It’s politically diverse. There are varying religious beliefs. Conservative. Liberal. We feel and want to continue to offer a place that’s serene and a place for reflection and unity.’’

Eaton, NH - 10/10/2019 - The Little White Church is pictured in Eaton, N.H. on Thursday, Oct. 10. (Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe) Topic: 11farragher
Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe
More than $150,000 has been raised for the church’s reconstruction fund.

The church hosts about 26 public gatherings each year. Weddings. Memorial services. Concerts. Pot luck dinners.

John Hartman, the church president, opens and closes the church, sometimes in the dark and the cold of winter.

“That’s a special time for me because I’m alone here and it’s dark,’’ he told me from the front pew. “It’s part of my life, literally. Sometimes I talk to the church when I’m here. She never talks back but there’s a feeling here. It’s part of my life. Has been for the last 20 years. It’s a very special place, in a very special town, in a very special part of the state.

“We kind of made a promise to ourselves and to the community. We said: ‘We’re going to replace that steeple.’ And now we’re going to make that happen. And we will make that happen.’’

Critical components of the steeple and the bell now sit in Thomas Costello’s barn. By next summer they will return to their place atop the little church, their customary home since 1879.

There will be cheers. Some tears. The 2020 Christmas pageant — when children will sing “Away in a Manger’’ and “Little Drummer Boy’’ — promises to be something special.

“It’s such an integral part of this town,’’ said Tim Ostendorf, who is the co-owner and operator of the Inn at Crystal Lake, just down the street from the church. “My bedroom window perfectly frames that church.

“You can’t get more iconic than that.’’

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.