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Waukegan congregation takes a shine to new church steeple

Wagner Sons Jerry Moreau McHenry installs copper shingles steeple Christ Episcopal Church GrAve. Waukegan. | Thomas Delany Jr.~Sun-Times Media

Wagner and Sons Jerry Moreau of McHenry installs copper shingles on a steeple at Christ Episcopal Church on Grand Ave. in Waukegan. | Thomas Delany Jr.~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: February 12, 2013 2:17AM

WAUKEGAN — The cross on top of Christ Episcopal Church is a beacon for worshippers, but now a shiny, new, copper steeple has become a physical beacon in the downtown that visitors can’t miss.

“It really looks good. I think you’ll get more people in church,” said Steve Smeja, 58, the owner of Albert J. Wagner and Sons.

“I hope so!” the Rev. Eileen Shanley-Roberts exclaimed when told of Smeja’s remark. “The people who have seen it are really excited. It’s really been an interesting process to watch.”

Shanley-Roberts would love to see more people come in because of the new steeple that tops off a church building at 410 W. Grand Ave., that will celebrate its 125th anniversary next year.

Once they are done with the steeple, roofers will be re-doing the metal cornice work just below the roof.

The first sign of trouble came with the violent windstorms that marched across the county over a year ago. It was the same storm that devastated the Adeline Geo-Karis Illinois Beach State Park.

“We lost several shingles off the steeple,” said Shanley-Roberts. They were regular asphalt shingles, and since they were older, they contained asbestos.

That meant they had to be removed and sent to a special dump for hazardous waste.

“Then, through the course of the winter and then more storms, we started to see more shingles fall. It was like a domino effect,” she said. “We started worrying about the safety.”

After reviewing their options, church members learned the copper roof would last 100 to 125 years and slate would actually cost more.

Shanley-Roberts said the copper was so beautiful church officials decided it was well worth the investment. Especially since the cornice work also needed to be redone.

Some people think the cornice is stamped cement or metal, but Smeja said it’s all done by hand, using special tools to bend the metal. The shingles themselves are secured by brackets and copper nails, just like it was done a century ago.

“It’s more art than work,” said Smeja. “There’s no two jobs alike. It’s always a challenge.”

The copper will turn a dark brown and won’t be so shiny after about six weeks. Then it will take 10 to 15 years to develop a green patina.

The copper itself, if sold as scrap, would be worth about $9,000, said Smeja, who explained he always has to have two workers on site of a job like this. One to work on the steeple, the other to watch the copper on the truck.

“Actually, it’s been a pleasure working in Waukegan. It’s kind of quiet. In Chicago, you are always dealing with traffic, people walking around and expensive permits,” he said.

“Everyone is very excited,” the reverend said about her congregation. “And they should be. It’s almost like a work of art.”

Smeja’s has a storied history in Chicago, but moved out to the suburbs a few years ago because of costs. In 1894, Albert Wagner opened his own business in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, working with architectural greats like Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, John Maher and others on churches, residences and public projects.

“We’re also doing the Capitol doors in Springfield,” Smeja said, referring to the state Capitol. “We do anything that has to do with ornamental metal work.”

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