Andy Littrel with Roofmasters Roofing estimated the wind speed at 40 mph.
His co-workers 80 to 90 feet in the air, were working from the bucket of a boom truck, removing the old copper skin from the steeple of St. Joseph’s Church in Liebenthal on a recent Thursday.
“I’ve got one of my newer guys up there right now and he’s doing all right,” said Littrel, site foreman on the job. “Some people don’t appreciate the moving and the swaying and the heights. But it’s just something you overcome, I guess. I guess if you’re afraid of heights, it’s the wrong place to be.”
St. Joseph parish, which has 50 registered parishioners, hired Roofmasters to peel off the wind- and hail-worn skin and replace it with new.
Roofmasters has repaired the roof numerous times in the past, said Judy Hoffman, church secretary and a member of the parish council.
“February and March a year ago, high winds tore loose the copper,” said Hoffman. “There’s so much rotted wood they can’t reattach the copper again. The old copper is cracked and weather torn and it’s letting water soak in. So we have to replace the wood and copper.”
The interior of the limestone church built in 1917 was gutted by fire in December 1959. As the first Volga-German settlement here, Liebenthal is home to many Catholics, and over the years they’ve managed to preserve the church, and also the school, now used for parish events, and a two-story limestone rectory that go with it.
Their latest fundraiser has been to raise money for steeple repair on the church, one of the many historic limestone churches in Rush County.
“Oh Lord,” Hoffman said, “Right now we’re expecting it to be at least $80,000.”
So far the church has raised $32,000 for the repair, including insurance compensation for the wind damage, fundraisers, donations, and gifts from parishioners who left money upon their death.
“We’ve done a lot, with just a few people,” Hoffman said. “We’re always having fundraisers. We have a lot of faith and a little savings.”
The roof was last redone 55 years ago, said Littrel. Getting the skin off the steeple requires removing 16-penny nails, 3-inch screws and a lot of copper nails, said Littrel.
“We pull all the nails out and use snips to hack up the copper in pieces so you can handle it,” he said. The old copper will be recycled and replaced with new copper.
Four of the five crosses on the roof will be replaced with new crosses that Littrel will build. Looking at them on Thursday, he said he’ll use the original ones as a pattern.
“I’ll take it back and try and copy what they did,” he said. “Whoever did this did a really good job. It takes a craftsman, it’s an art.”
The copper starts out bright and shiny, and over the course of several years of weathering, it begins to change color and lose its shine, turning a dark bronze.
“The sun changes it, and the rain,” Littrel said.
Last Thursday, Kyle Kinderknecht, of Hays, operated the boom, which had a gib attached to extend the reach. Working in the man basket, as it’s called, were Ronald Reif, of WaKeeney, and Taton Busby, of Hays.
Weather cooperating, it should take about a week to remove the skin, Littrel said. From there, the team will fabricate a new copper roof at the company’s state-of-the-art Roofmasters Roofing and Sheet Metal shop at 2070 E. 8th St. in Hays.
“The original plan was to remove the steeple,” said Joshua Hunter, Roofmasters repair and maintenance manager. “But due to the way it was constructed, that’s not the safest option.”
It it stops raining, Roofmasters should have the job done in 30 days, Hunter said.
The copper crown molding will also have to be removed and new molding fabricated.
“With the age of the steeple where it meets the limestone, it had blown up the crown molding,” Hunter said.
“We’ve done multiple repairs on this steeple and over the years it has just gotten worse,” he said. “Copper is a good material, but with that abuse from the western Kansas storms it can really degrade.”
Some stones around the steeple base are also loose, which will require that a mason go up and make repairs.
Because of the high winds last Thursday, Roofmasters worked lower, around the eaves of the steeple.
“It’s a lot bigger when you’re up there,” Littrel said. “When you’re right up against it, it is much bigger, it shows its true size.”