The steeple — simple and traditional, with crosses adorning its base and a light inside that at sundown brightens the dark Mississippi nights — means everything to Reubin and Freddie Ruth Ball.
It was raised atop the family church in memory of their daughter Charlene, who died from cancer in 2011 at the age of 42.
“The light in it, it just shines. And we feel like her light still shines, you know?” Freddie Ruth Ball said.
Reubin’s father helped build Green Lodge Congregational Holiness Church in 1932. It’s where they raised their children. The couple’s only other child, their son Charles, died in an auto accident in 1990.
Ball said her daughter had always wanted the family church to have a steeple.
It was sunny on the day of the steeple’s dedication, Ball said, and all of sudden “a few raindrops fell. It was like the Lord was christening it.”
To make the monument Charlene had dreamed of a reality, the Balls found a family in the business of making steeples. Gerry Cofield, along with her parents, Stanley and Sandra Cofield, owns American Steeples and Baptisteries in Wedowee.
Gerry Cofield admits she doesn’t know a great deal about the history of steeples, but she’s very aware of how much they mean to the people who worship underneath them.
And her company also understands that what it creates are treasured symbols of faith that make it easier to recognize houses of worship.
“Paul Harvey once said that ‘every church needs a steeple because otherwise how do you know it’s a church?’” Cofield said.
Scholars disagree about the origin of steeples. Some believe their shape is rooted in paganism, taken from the image of the phallic rock pillars. Others think they could have originated from Egyptian obelisks.
One thing most scholars agree on is that early settlers to America brought with them the designs they’d grown up with, and many of the country’s early steeples were examples of 18th-century European Georgian architecture.
They were simple, made of wood — copper was too expensive — and painted white.
The Cofields make their steeples from fiberglass because the material can outlast wood by many decades and takes little upkeep.
Many customers want traditional steeples, often asking for an exact copy of an old one, and Coffield explained that her father can make just about anything, given the chance.
Part craftsman and part artist, Cofield’s father loves the design aspect of his work, she said, often adding new elements to a traditional design to make something original.
His latest model is small and simple, made to be less expensive, lightweight and easy to install, she said, “because these small churches, a lot of them are mostly older members with smaller congregations, and they can install them fairly easily.”
The days when church bells rang out in every small town may not be gone entirely, but things are headed that way, Cofield explained.
Few churches still make use of mechanical bells hung inside steeples, having switched to electronic chimes, which cost less to repair. The bells themselves, however, are often treasured.
“A lot of them are very attached to their bells, and they want to take them out of the old steeple and put them into their new one,” she said.
In Ocracoke Island, N.C., a favorite vacation spot of Cofield’s, there is a church that still uses its original church bells.
“They ring their church bells every day, three times a day, and it’s kind of a reassuring sound,” she said. “You feel safe.”
With a new steeple often comes a dedication ceremony. Church members come together, usually over a meal, and lift their eyes skyward to watch as workers busy themselves on the church’s highest ridge.
The steeple dedication at Green Lodge Church in Mississippi was held in October 2011, the Sunday after Charlene’s birthday.
Ball said her daughter had a heart for mission work, each year raising money to buy school supplies and Christmas gifts for children in Kentucky.
“We miss her so much. She was just wonderful. Vibrant. Full of life. Constantly doing something for someone else,” Ball recalls. But they can look up to the top of their small white church and always be reminded of her.
It’s those connections that make her job special, Cofield says.
“Sometimes you can get hung up in it just being a business,” she explained. “But when you get attached to somebody and you feel like you’ve helped them feel better … You want everything to be perfect always, but especially for those people. It means something to them.”
Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.