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WATERTOWN — St. Bernard's Catholic Church has been a signature building in this city since 1876.

Constructed by Irish immigrants with locally quarried cream-colored brick at the top of Main Street on one of the city's highest points, the church can be spotted for miles.

But when I traveled up South Church Street last week, something I have done countless times over almost five decades, the view was blinding and like none that I had ever seen.

The addition of 12-by-7-inch copper shingles to the church's spire has made this centerpiece of the city stand out even more, especially on a sunny but crisp fall day.

"It's always been a landmark and this adds to the prominence of the spire itself," said the Rev. Dan Ganshert. "It's a real statement about the importance of the faith in the community of Watertown."

The copper shingles are part of a $1.2 million roofing and maintenance project that has been under way since June. The church has been shrouded in a maze of scaffolding but over the next few weeks, the almost 200-foot-tall tower of pipes from Badger Scaffolding in Green Bay will slowly be dismantled, revealing the finished work by Langer Roofing of Milwaukee and Hunzinger Construction of Brookfield.

But the project is more than just the addition of copper shingles to the spire.

Other work on the church building included removing asbestos shingles (installed in 1915); laying 500 sheets of plywood to the 200-foot-long pitched roof; improving the gutters and downspouts; restoring the clock; and removing, restoring and reinstalling the 125-year-old, 450-pound steel cross at the top of the spire.

To ensure that the 11-foot-high, 6-foot-wide cross would be stable for another 100 or so years, the rotting pine king post originally harvested from the Nicolet National Forest in northern Wisconsin was removed. The replacement king post, a 17-foot-long beam of Douglas fir, is actually old. It was salvaged from a building at the J.I. Case tractor factory in Racine. The "new" post, which runs through the middle of the spire and holds the cross, was made by Glenville Timberwrights in Baraboo.

"Keep in mind that this is a wood structure and wood moves different than steel," Tom Gates, the church's supervisor of building and grounds said when asked why a steel post wasn't used. "You just can't all of a sudden decide to put steel in there."

Watertown is split by the winding Rock River and known for its German heritage, the nation's first kindergarten and the Octagon House. And while the city may be noted for its numerous taverns, the city's faith community is impossible to overlook.

Besides St. Bernard's and its 600 families in the parish, St. Henry's Catholic Church is almost as large. There's also St. John's Lutheran, St. Mark's Lutheran, St. Luke's Evangelical and Trinity Evangelical Lutheran churches. They all operate elementary schools, plus there is Luther Prepatory School, founded in 1865 and touted as the oldest Lutheran high school in the country.

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On the other end of the city, the Baptists have laid their claim with about 1,000 students between Maranatha Baptist Bible College & Seminary and its high school, Maranatha Baptist Academy.

And then there is Bethesda Lutheran Home, one of the city's largest employers that since 1904 has been caring for those with developmental disabilities.

But because of its location, St. Bernard's is the most visible religious facility.

It was built from 1873-1876 for $100,000 in the Gothic Revival style and designed by architect Patrick Keely, who has about 700 church structures to his credit. They include the University of Notre Dame Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago and Immaculate Conception Church in Boston.

The 4,600-pound clock mechanism and the four clock faces were added in 1905 and paid for from the will of Ellen Kelly and her bother, William M. Kelly, according to the Watertown Gazette.

Plans for this year's restoration project began last fall and fundraising began in March. The effort was seeded by the Joe and Sharon Darcey Foundation, which donated $250,000. So far, the church has $900,000 in cash in hand and another $750,000 in pledges that will be collected over the next three years.

The fundraising says "that people really take a lot of pride in not only St. Bernard's Parish but its importance in the community," Ganshert said. "They wanted to restore it, maintain it and renew it."

What's left over from the fundraising campaign will be used for repairs and painting the church interior, a project that will likely take place in 2013.

But if you want to see the glimmering spire, don't wait. Once oxidation begins, the copper will dull, eventually to a greenish hue. The church's role in the community, however, will remain the same, said Jeff Allen, who has been principal of the St. Bernard's Elementary School for over 30 years.

"Our steeple is a monument of faith," Allen said. "But it's also a changing living structure."

Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at badams@madison.com.

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