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The steeple Hurricane Hazel blew away 62 years ago

RICHMOND, Va. -- Hurricane Hazel formed 62 years ago this week, on October 5, 1954. It devastated Haiti then ripped into North America for a week, from South Carolina to Ontario, Canada.

It would kill more than 575 people.

Hazel's visit just off the coast of Virginia delivered howling winds in Richmond that fascinated Betty Johnson, who was nine years old at the time.

"I was a young woman living on (North) 20th St. and I was sitting in the window when Hurricane Hazel came through," Johnson, now 71, recalled Wednesday as she got ready for Bible study at New Light Baptist Church at 2100 E. Broad Street near downtown. "It was awful. My mother said, 'You'd better get out of that window because it's going to blow the window open.' But it didn't. I was looking at the steeple."

Since 1860, Trinity Methodist Church's mighty steeple dominated Richmond's skyline.

The congregation eventually moved to Henrico in 1945, and the building became New Light Baptist Church two years later.

Then Hazel came calling.

Looking out of her wind-buffeted window back then, young Betty Johnson saw the howling wind pick away at the needle-like wooden steeple. "The boards started pulling away."

Can you imagine?

The spire was damaged badly, and it had to be torn down to the steeple tower. Never again would Richmond allow a steeple to climb so high in the sky.

On Wednesday, I got a tour of the steeple tower -- something I've wanted to do for decades.

Even without its mighty spire, it's a striking part of RVA's history and skyline.

The beams inside the tower are huge, and are still rock-solid. They were erected in X patterns - the symmetry is beautiful. Please watch the video and you'll see some living history revealed.

New Light pastor Dr. Vernon J. Hurte said they're considering adding "a feature" on top of the steeple tower as they work through the details of a planned renovation and expansion. Obviously, if they did add something it would have to be much more modest than the original.

But the steeple-less flavor of the church has been something of an attraction, he said.

"The steeple not being there has been a really interesting point for us," Rev. Hurte said. Lots of people see the church as they drive on or exit Interstate 95 and "they noticed the church as the church without a steeple . . It's actually been a part of the character of the church now and it's drawn a lot of people. ."

So as of now, there are no finite plans to replace the steeple. Certainly, this would be a bad week to even consider it.

In fact, maybe it's a good week to reflect on the faith of the people instead of the height of the steeple.

Let us hope and pray that Matthew is no Hazel!