Members of Zion United Church of Christ on Sunday morning celebrated the groundbreaking of a $400,000 elevator project. The elevator will link three main levels of the building to ease access for handicapped, disabled and young mothers and is estimated to be competed by early 2013.

Zion Church is located at the intersection of Second and Iron streets in Lehighton. The original church was built in 1873, and from the time it was finished, underwent almost continuous construction until 1917. The second structure, which is the current church, was built in 1915.

The elevator will be constructed between the two joined massive stone buildings.

The project to raise the funds, seek an architect and a construction company was coordinated by the Faith Lift Committee, a group of about 12 members of the congregation, who were led by Brian Metzger, Dan Kunkle, Cheryl Kunkle and Judy Fatzinger.

Woody Frey of Service Construction, who was awarded the contract to build the elevator, said that being offered the opportunity to do the work at the church was a blessing.

"I am quite honored," said Frey.

He said that the first phase of the project will be to control the water flow. Service Construction has already began building the roof as part of the project.

"We'll dig as deep as we can," he said. Frey said the project also includes leveling the walkway in front of the church, building a new entrance and raising the doors to match up the floor.

Part of the reason the project will take several months to complete is that they cannot order the elevator until they know how deep the shaft will be and then the lead time to have it delivered is about three to four months.

The groundbreaking ceremony master of ceremonies was Dan Kunkle, who invited various members of the congregation to share their comments about how the elevator will help them become more active in the church.

"The development committee didn't say if this could be done," said Metzger. "It was more of when this will be done."

Brenda Buffington, who carried a baby in her arms and led her two young daughters to the microphone, said that having the elevator is a blessing from God.

Buffington represented all the young mothers who use strollers to carry their young children.

Sandra Sillers said that she has been a part of the church for many years and now suffers from arthritis, which makes traveling through the levels of the church difficult at times.

"I am looking forward to my first ride," said Sillers.

Vicky Hegyi said the new elevator means the world to her. Hegyi, a double leg amputee due to complications with diabetes said, "I look forward to having a meal in the dining room and finally accessing all the levels of the church."

Hegyi said that she plans to help out with various church committees which had been off limits to her because of the levels in the church.

Hegyi chairs the summer lunch program and she has not been able to see the program in operation because the dining room is on a level not accessible for her.

Gordon Ripkey said that the sun was shining brightly because it was a great day for Zion.

"My wife has a rare form of muscular dystrophy," said Ripkey. "Because of MD, my wife cannot get to Derr Hall. She cannot attend the roast beef dinners and she misses that." He added that because his wife is a shut in, she misses sociability, which is so important.

Also speaking was Michael Jonn, of Michael Joseph Jonn Architect, Allentown, architect for the project.

Jonn was quite impressed with the church, saying that it is a most unusual building, and is mostly gothic in design.

He said the elevator will be able to hold about 10 people at a time and is rated to hold 2,500 pounds, but could hold safely much more weight than that.

Cheryl Kunkle said that the building is more than a church.

"It's part of the community," she said. "We have Family Promise and we offer free food and some of the people cannot get in."

Metzger said that most of the funds for the project are pledged.

"We don't have enough to do the upstairs renovations in the hall. He said that if anyone wants to discuss donations for the project , he or she can contact Kenny Leffler at the church office.

The Rev. Allen Heckman said the church actually has 13 different levels and is held up with steel columns and is constructed with massive stone.

"What makes this church so unusual is that when the second building was built, there was a complete effort not to cover any windows," said Jonn.

Jonn said that he is unsure as to how deep the shaft for the elevator will go, but he is optimistic the shaft can be constructed deep enough to make all the levels accessible to everyone.

Following the groundbreaking program, the congregation celebrated with a luncheon in Derr Hall.

"The way the building was constructed, it has enough room for the elevator," said Kunkle. "It's almost like they had a vision that one day an elevator would work there."