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Inspired from above: Steeplejacks suspended over Sylva toil on church spire

fr steeplejacksAs a third generation steeplejack, Tony Stratton is used to a view from the top. As one of a handful of people in the nation still specializing in repairing church steeples the old-fashioned way, Stratton travels the country rappelling from the towering spires while repairing and restoring them.

His six-man crew from Rockford, Ill., cleverly coined Inspired Heights, is working now on the nearly 50-year-old steeple of the First Baptist Church in Sylva. Their work has attracted plenty of notice in town where passerbys on Main Street often stop to watch, their necks craned and heads cocked skyward, to marvel for a moment as the men do their construction work suspended far in the air.

“You definitely can’t be afraid of heights,” said crew member Michael Jenkins. “That’s the number one requirement: you must like heights.”

The men, if the rain will let them stay on schedule, believe they have another few weeks on the job in Sylva. They are removing the metal sheathing on the steeple and replacing wood that has suffered rain damage over the years, said Harold Messer, a member of the church’s properties and facilities committee.

“It was in very bad shape,” Messer said. “A lot of water problems and leaks inside.”

Messer explained that the seams in the metal had weakened through the years and that caulking and other handyman methods of repairing the steeple just weren’t getting the job done.

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“Instead of a Band-Aid way of fixing we needed something long term,” Messer said.

Messer spent some time online and found Inspired Heights, which does steeple work across the country.

Stratton learned the steeplejack trade from his father and first mastered the art of using ropes by climbing on rigging his father had strung up in the family’s barn.

“I just sort of grew up around it,” Stratton said.

Stratton said this old, traditional method of working on steeples is generally less expensive than building scaffolding around a steeple or using a crane to lop the steeple off and lower it to the ground, repairing it down below and then putting it back on the church.

“We’re hands on, up close and less intrusive,” Stratton said. “It’s just a better way of doing things.”

Messer said that hands-on approach was a key reason the church hired Inspired Heights.

“It’s all steel construction on the inside and it would weaken the steeple if we had to cut it and put it on the ground,” Messer said.

Stratton started Inspired Heights in 1993. Seven years ago, however, he refocused the company as a mentorship program for ex-offenders. The men hold Bible study one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening. Additionally, they attend church services where they are repairing steeples. The participants are taught and are expected to work, study and live according to Biblical principles.

“Before it was a job. These last seven years it has been an act of worship,” Stratton said. “This kind of combines my faith with the work I do. We’re working on churches while God works on us.”

Stratton said that it was critical to him to combine his work and spiritual life.

“I think that if you can’t combine the two of them then I question how sincere you are about your faith,” he said. “We should demonstrate our values all the time.”

Courtney Brown, one of the crew members, previously worked as a dog groomer. Brown said he never dreamed that one day he’d be hanging by ropes at the top of churches working on steeples.

“God took me way out of my comfort zone,” Brown said. “From dog grooming to heights. But I love the ropes now that I’ve gotten used to it.”

Crew member Leroy Thompson agreed.

“I had to get used to hanging up there on a rope,” said Thompson, who has worked with the crew for about a year. “And this is a baby steeple compared to some of them.”

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