A Beacon of Hope Old World craftsmanship enhances St. Mary’s Bell Tower

Nov. 14-20, 2002

By Adele DelSavio/ SUN contributing writer
OSWEGO — St. Mary’s bell tower can be seen from everywhere in Oswego. The tallest structure in the city, it is considered a landmark by the locals. It is especially striking when it is lit up at night.

The bell tower was erected with the church in 1919. Over the years leaks developed and structural problems became obvious. The tower needed fixing. Fixing a bell tower isn’t like fixing a roof, however. Workers called steeplejacks specialize in fixing bell towers and steeples. Since there is no foothold on a steeple, an elaborate system of straps, ropes and safety harnesses is needed to stabilize the workers and free their hands to work.

Upstate Aerial of Canandaigua was awarded the contract to do the renovation of St. Mary’s. The people at Upstate Aerial, which is in the process of changing its name to Allstate Aerial, are specialists in the historic renovation of church steeples.

At St. Mary’s, they had to repair the wooden structure of the tower and then cover the steeple with copper, because the original copperwork had been leaking. While they found several structural problems, they didn’t fault the original builders. “That was the best they did at the time,” said Chuck Tanguay, owner of Upstate Aerial. He explained that a lot of Old World construction techniques were lost after World War I. “If you look at churches that were built in the late 1800s, usually the metalwork was better than anything in the 1900s,” he said.

Tanguay said that after World War I builders started cutting labor costs by, for example, using large panels of metal instead of small ones. These would expand and contract as the temperature changed and, because of their size, lead to leaks. It is better, Tanguay said, to use smaller pieces of metal.

“The old guys knew that. When you look at all these real old roofs you see smaller pieces, that’s how we learned it, by tearing out 100-plus-year-old roofs that lasted this long,” he said. He used smaller pieces of metal for St. Mary’s metalwork.

“I think people are starting to recognize that, when you try to shave labor from some of those Old World techniques, it doesn’t work,” Tanguay said. “For a long time, people said, ‘Well, we can save labor, we can use copper but make giant panels, not solder it so heavily.’ In the old days, materials were the expensive part of a job; nowadays it’s labor. Everybody started cutting labor, and now people are realizing that the stuff just doesn’t last as long or doesn’t last at all. It’s a waste of money if you don’t do it right.”

The original builders of the steeple had made other mistakes, such as using steel nails. “With copper, they rust,” said Tanguay. Tanguay, co-owner Scott Selin and their crew had to renail with copper nails.

Upstate Aerial maintains a small crew. “We tried more, but it’s hard to control quality. I want to be more a craftsman than a businessman,” commented Tanguay.

These are the first significant repairs to the steeple since 1963. Selin is confident that the renovated steeple will last “at least 100 years.”

A new cross, covered in gold leaf, was placed on top of the steeple. While the copper on the tower will eventually turn green, the cross will remain gold.

The bell that has been in the parish since 1852 is still in the bell tower. It is silent now; its ringing has been replaced by the sounds of an electronic carillon.

The tower was recently lit up again after being dark all summer while the repairs were being made. “People coming in from the lake use it as kind of a beacon,” said St. Mary’s pastor, Father Robert Stephenson, referring to the boaters on Lake Ontario. “One man said to me, ‘When are you going to get that tower lit up so we can see where we’re going?’” he laughed.

“I think the steeple says a lot to the Catholic community,” Father Stephenson continued. “It is a beacon of hope with the light and the new cross on the top.”

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