The bells of St. Bernard Catholic Church in downtown Akron fell silent about three weeks ago after someone spied a crack in the stone church's south bell tower.
Officials at the parish turned off the bells — which usually chime on the hour, before funerals and at the end of weddings — as a safety precaution and quickly hired an engineer to assess the damage at the 114-year-old building, the Rev. Christopher J. Zerucha said this week.
But before the crack could be fixed, a chunk of stone tile from the church's other bell tower — on the north side — plummeted to the sidewalk April 9.
No one was injured. Church volunteers discovered the shattered stone the next morning when they arrived to clean and feed the poor, Zerucha said.
In the days since, the church has scrambled to get the help and government permits to shore up in the short term while they assess long-term needs.
St. Bernard is now safe to visit or to pass by, Zerucha said, after workers installed metal netting around the exterior to catch any other stone or mortar that may fall from the German-Romanesque building, designed to echo the architecture of cathedrals in the Rhineland region of Europe.
Engineers from two companies are still assessing what work needs to be done to keep St. Bernard, largely fronted with sandstone, standing strong.
"Stones being moved are part of the Christian tradition," Zerucha said Wednesday after a reporter asked if him if the building's situation might make it into Sunday's Easter homily.
"Jesus moved obstacles ... stones didn't get in the way of his mission," Zerucha said. "That's the spirit we're going to have to do whatever it takes to keep this building healthy."
Zerucha was installed in October by the Cleveland Catholic Diocese as pastor of both St. Bernard and St. Mary parishes in Akron after serving as a priest in Lake County for about 7½ years.
He quickly learned St. Bernard had issues with its exterior. In January, church officials received a quote for an "envelope study."
"A lot of people think that's for envelopes, like collections, but it's not," he joked.
Rather, it's an engineering assessment of everything that separates or protects the indoors of the church from the outdoors — foundation, stone, windows, roofing, doors.
Work was supposed to begin over the summer when the weather was better. But Sara Peters of THP Limited in Twinsburg pushed it forward after the issues with the bell towers.
At the same time, Jim Wamelink, vice president of WR Restoration, was brought in to implement solutions ordered by engineers.
Zerucha said St. Bernard has a dedicated account for maintaining the building. But it likely won't cover the work needed at the church.
He already has a meeting set up with Progress Through Preservation of Greater Akron, a nonprofit group that promotes the preservation and restoration of historic buildings in the area.
And Zerucha said he's investigating the potential of receiving matching funds from a national group dedicated to the same purpose across the country.
"But it's early in the game and we don't know what we're looking at in terms of cost," Zerucha said.
The church likely will also raise money for the restoration from the parish and Greater Akron.
"St. Bernard is an awesome parish community, but I've met many people who don't belong here, but they [come in] to pray or had life-changing experiences," he said. "The building is more than just a parish building."
More immediately, Zerucha has another focus.
The church, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is surrounded by scaffolding as workers examine each stone tile — many about the size of an adult human leg — removing those that are wobbly.
"One of the first thoughts that popped into my head (after the scaffolding went up) was, 'It's wedding season,' " Zerucha said.
The church has 25 ceremonies booked and many couples depend on St. Bernard's stone exterior as a unique backdrop in photos.
The good news, Zerucha said, is the interior of St. Bernard looks fantastic, he said. The church just wrapped up a $30,000 project to touch up the ornate painting behind the altar. And in recent years under a former pastor, the marble floors were polished and renovated and more than $400,000 was spent to improve the church organ.
Zerucha said he doesn't know how long the scaffolding will be up. It could come down for a while and go back up in parts, he said. So he's notifying those with May weddings scheduled now and will update others as he knows more.
For now, the electronic timer that controls St. Bernard's bells — original to the building, which was constructed between 1902 and 1905 — is turned off.
But all services continue.
On Wednesday, Zerucha spent the day in Cleveland at the diocese for the annual spiritual renewal day, when priests renew vows during Holy Week.
Zerucha said he happened to sit next to a spiritual adviser who taught aspiring priests and jokingly asked him why he never offered lessons in how to handle cracks in bell towers.
"He told me it was a spiritual class, to learn about mountains," Zerucha said. "Bell towers, he said, are things of the material world."