The day after November’s magnitude 7.1 earthquake, Jess Snider went to his church, First Presbyterian in downtown Anchorage, and began looking for signs of damage. The earthquake hit on a Friday morning, and the church needed to know if it would be safe to hold service on the following Sunday.

Walking around the outside, he looked up at the wooden cross that had stood atop the building’s 75-foot tower for nearly 50 years. The cross was still there, but it was missing an arm. Snider found it on the ground nearby. The rest of the building appeared fine, and the congregation met as usual on Sunday, sitting through one of the bigger aftershocks that rocked Southcentral Alaska in the days after the big shake.

Snider is on the church’s building committee, and for years the group had been documenting maintenance needs of the building, which was dedicated in 1968. A few years ago the church replaced the roof, adding insulation in the process. The icicles that had for years stretched all the way to the ground disappeared. The next big project was to repair the stucco that was crumbling bit by bit.

Workers from Superior Plastering and Cement Finishing remove stucco from First Presbyterian Church in downtown Anchorage on Wednesday, June 13, 2019. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

“I was worried that I’d come to church on some Sunday and find a homeless person with a piece of stucco in his skull,” said Snider. Fueled by a $400,000 donation from a member of the congregation, the building committee hired Jack Forshee, president of Superior Plastering and Cement Finishing.

Forshee and his team spent two weeks wrapping the building in scaffolding, preparing for what they thought was going to be a patching job, fixing problems with the stucco wherever they found them. But as soon as they started digging into the wall, they discovered that the stucco, from the late 1960s, had been improperly installed and had been covered over at some point with new stucco, which added weight to the already precariously hanging walls. The building was literally wrapped in tons of crumbling rock that had somehow survived the earthquake.

Not only was the stucco crumbling, but the four cast-iron bells that hung from the steeple were perched on rotting wood.

“We were up there, on the scaffolding, when the bells rang,” said Forshee. “I saw sawdust falling down and the whole structure was shaking. I ordered everyone down and we had them shut off the bells.”

The largest of the bells weighs 595 pounds.

A cast-iron bell hangs from rotting wood atop the steeple at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Anchorage on May 9, 2019. Contractors working on the building discovered the precariously-hanging bells, one of which weighs 595 pounds. (Courtesy Jack Forshee)

Once the bells were removed, the work continued. Behind some of the crumbling stucco, Forshee found more rotting wood on structural beams that were holding up the wall of the sanctuary. “We avoided catastrophic failure,” said Snider. “If one of these bells had come down, it probably would have taken down the steeple.”

The church now plans to replace all the stucco and build a new steel cross and supports for the bells, which means that Forshee and his team will be working on the building all summer.

“Most of us were not here when this church was built,” said Pastor Matt Schultz, who has been the pastor for the past six years. “It’s our responsibility to pass it off to the next generation in better shape than it was given to us.”

On Wednesday, Schultz and Forshee climbed the scaffolding to the top of the steeple. Forshee’s daughter Amber took the pastor’s phone and recorded a video of him reading a passage from Ephesians, one that touches on the word "cornerstone.' Shultz plans to show it to his congregation on Sunday.

“I want them to know that even though the surface needs work, the foundation is strong,” he said.