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Atop the tiny, white-columned 1842 church where Glen Likens was baptized, where he married his wife, where their children were baptized, where they still worship on Sundays, the steeple is rotting.

St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Wadsworth, Ohio, hasn't dared sound the damaged 2,000-pound bell for a year. It may not sound again—unless a congregation numbering 58 souls in a good week can come up with $30,000.

"It's no easy amount to raise. We absolutely considered taking it off and capping the roof, but voices within the congregation want their bell, their tower. It's symbolic. It's part of our church," says Likens, who volunteers as St. Mark's junior warden in charge of maintenance.

Nationwide, church steeples are taking a beating, and the bell tolls for bell towers, too, as these landmarks of faith are hard hit by economic, social and religious change.

Steeplejacks, who specialize in clambering up to build or repair the soaring structures, see weather-struck, maintenance-deprived steeples chipped, leaking, even tilting.

Architects and church planners say today's new congregations meet in retooled sports arenas or shopping malls or modern buildings designed to appeal to contemporary believers turned off by the look of old-time religion.

Steeples may have outlived their times as signposts. People hunting for a church don't scan the horizon; they search the Internet.

St. Mark's, which has no website, has never needed to tell the 22,000 people in Wadsworth where it was because, Likens said, "everyone in town knows this is the church with the bell tower."

"But everyone also knows the Episcopal Church and congregations as a whole aren't growing," he says. "In fact, they are sliding and they are aging like St. Mark's. That ...

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May 2011

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