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A steeple - and spirits - are raised at Fort Mill church

With the sun shining along Tom Hall Street on Friday afternoon, more than 300 members of Unity Presbyterian Church gathered on the lawn in front of the church. Some lounged on beach blankets while others pulled up a patch of grass, all waiting to see history in the making.

An 1,800-pound steeple covered in shining copper was set atop the new Unity Presbyterian Church sanctuary Friday, marking completion of the highest point on the new building that has been under construction since May, 2009.

It was a historic event for the congregation, the oldest church in Fort Mill, and for Rev. Dr. Dan Holloway. He said that seeing a steeple raised to the top of a sanctuary is probably a once-in-a-lifetime event.

"We are truly witnessing history today," Holloway said.

The last time a steeple was raised at Unity Presbyterian Church was in 1881, when the existing sanctuary was built. The new sanctuary is the third to be built on the church's current site. The first burned in 1880, according to William Bradford's book on Fort Mill history, "Out of the Past."

Two men from Conner Construction of Charlotte waited at the top of the new sanctuary for a crane to swing the steeple into place.

They guided the copper-covered steeple as it neared its final resting place. Traffic along Tom Hall Street stopped briefly as onlookers took in the rare sight and more than one gasp was heard from the crowd as the steeple swayed and, finally, made its way to the top of the sanctuary.

When the steeple was in place, cheers erupted from the crowd and hundreds of white balloons were released from the lawn at Unity Church.

The steeple of the church is important for reasons beyond aesthetics, Holloway said. Most modern church steeples descend from those designed by Christopher Wren of Great Britain in the 17th century, Holloway said.

"Wren believed churches should point people towards God," Holloway said. "So steeples have traditionally pointed people towards God in their times of hardship."

The new sanctuary will hold 550 people; the old one's capacity was 250. The building will also have classrooms for Sunday school and youth groups.

On a typical Sunday, Holloway said, Unity averages a total of 435 people attending its two services. Ten or more services a year are so well attended that a room is set up for the overflow crowd, complete with a large screen capturing what is happening in the main sanctuary.

The former sanctuary will continue to be used for small weddings, funerals and other events, Holloway said.

"[Building a new sanctuary] has been one of the best experiences of my whole life," Holloway said. "It's an exciting time. The church is alive. I think people are really interested in what we're doing here."

While the steeple was secured to the building and the cross was put in place atop the steeple, church members and guests ate lunch on the lawn, courtesy of a catered barbeque meal supplied by Conner Construction.

And while the occasion for gathering was an important one, the day wasn't without humor and a bit of fun.

"I wanted to get the pastor to ride the steeple up, singing 'Nearer my God to Thee,'" said church member and Fort Mill Town Councilman Larry Huntley. "For some reason he just laughed at me."

Holloway responded, "I do thank you for the suggestion, but I will not be doing that today."

The new sanctuary and classrooms will be open for tours May 8-10.

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