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Pointing Upwards: Port Gibson Landmark Restored

By Jennie Guido • Photography courtesy of First Presbyterian Church of Port Gibson and by Jennie Guido

 

On a sunny, unseasonably mild Wednesday morning in August, a golden hand rose upward towards the heavens from its rightful home in Port Gibson, Mississippi. After being removed from atop the First Presbyterian Church for renovations and re-gilding, the iconic Golden Hand that so many passersby and locals looked up to through the years, as they ventured up and down Highway 61, is finally back and again guiding glances toward paradise.

 

“Nestled deep in Mississippi in the little town of Port Gibson, every event and season of many families’ lives since just after the year 1900 has occurred in the shadow of the hand atop First Presbyterian Church,” Jo Ann Mikell, a member of the church, explains. “Its silent presence has comforted us through a multitude of life events and conditions—births, deaths, marriages, personal joy, personal tragedy, and the simple passage of time. The sight of it has stilled our fears and nudged us into gratitude. It has said ‘good-bye’ and also welcomed home. It has reminded us that home is really where the hand points. A glimpse of it in the moonlight after a raging storm or in the radiant sunlight gives notice that it is busy directing the way for all souls.”

 

Formed from a congregation just west of Port Gibson, the First Presbyterian Church was moved to Port Gibson, Mississippi, in 1807 with the first pastor, Dr. Zebulon Butler, leading the church. During his sermons, Butler would characteristically raise his hand with his index finger pointed upward. “By 1859, the congregation numbered 160, and they decided to build the present structure,” the church’s history shares and adds, “The hand pointing to Heaven, which was fabricated to honor Bulter’s famous gesture, is the unique feature of this Romanesque Revival style edifice. The first hand was carved from wood by Daniel Foley, a young local craftsman. The ravages of time, however, destroyed it; and around 1901, the present hand was commissioned and installed. It was taken down in 1989 to be repaired, replaced, and raised again in 1990 atop a newly re-enforced steeple.”

 

The hand, which has again been removed, repaired, and recently reinstalled, stands 147 feet from the ground. It is ten feet, four inches tall with a four-foot index finger pointing upward. “Fabricated from 24 gauge sheet iron, the hand weighs 200 pounds and is covered by the finest German gold leaf which is but .0003 of an inch thick—ten times thinner than a sheet of paper,” according to church history.

 

Jimmy Cassell, the Chairman of the Board of Deacons of the First Presbyterian congregation, along with Jeff Roberts personally delivered the hand to American Stripping in Manassas, Virginia, earlier this year for the re-gilding process to begin. It was carefully removed, wrapped, and secured for its long journey.

 

Cassell recalls, “We unbolted the hand and brought it down using two cranes. We loaded it into a U-Haul trailer and headed to Virginia. They stripped it down to the bare metal and applied a rust preventative. After drying, they applied coats of epoxy, letting it dry after each coat. After the last coat, the gilders came in from Baltimore, Maryland, and applied the gold leaf. After curing for a few days, the hand was wrapped in layers of plastic film and foam padding. It was placed in a specially-made cradle and strapped in ready for pick up.”

 

Cassell kept the congregation and interested parties abreast of the progress of the golden hand as each step of the process was completed. Finally, in August, he returned to Virginia to retrieve the hand and bring it back home.

 

With a large crowd gathered around on that August morning to see the hand unveiled, journalists from all over the state, locals of the congregation, and even some tourists stood in awe of the newly-gilded hand as it waited for its return home. A line formed for those wanting their pictures taken with the hand before its positioning back atop its steeple. The raising took around fifteen to twenty minutes using heavy machinery and cranes to make sure the hand rested exactly in its former position.

 

Jo Ann Mikell believes the hand represents a shared experience: “One of the most extraordinary things about the Golden Hand is that it belongs to everyone. It does not belong only to this particular church and its congregation. We delight in sharing it with the world, so it is not tucked away inside our walls like a precious relic. No, it has a bold, towering presence where it is evident to locals and tourists, Christians and non-Christians.”

 

For more information on the First Presbyterian Church of Port Gibson and the history of the Golden Hand, visit www.fpcportgibson.com.

 

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