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A historic landmark, shiny and new; Replacement cupola for Corpus Christi rises to its home over the East Side

You could call it 10,000 pounds of steel, timber and copper.

You could call it an unmistakable 180-foot-tall element of the Buffalo skyline.

Or you could call it a historic city landmark.

The new cupola for the south tower at Corpus Christi Catholic Church is all of those things.

But, as the gleaming, auburn-hued cupola rose over Clark Street at a few minutes past 1 p.m. Wednesday -- in a lift that took two hours to prepare for and perhaps 20 minutes to execute -- it was more than that.

It was a symbol of hope, on the often-disparaged East Side.

"It's amazing to think we almost closed, 10 years ago," said Chris Byrd, an advocate for the Polish-American church, which was founded in 1898. "This is love and dedication -- and deep roots.

"We're a beacon of hope to the neighborhood. We believe in this place so much."

Along with the cupola, up into the air above the East Side rose hundreds of letters written by generations of Corpus Christi's faithful.

Letters written a century ago by parish schoolchildren and others at the direction of the nuns working in Corpus Christi parish were found in the cross atop the original cupola when it was removed. Wednesday, when workers installed the new cupola, two insulated copper boxes containing some 500 new letters written by modern-day parishioners and others from all over Western New York were lifted into the sky. The boxes of letters are located in both arms of the copper cross atop the dome.

Besides the new letters, church members put many of the antique letters that had been found in the old cross into the new structure.

"That's what the nuns would have wanted," said Christine Cooley, the church secretary. "They're back in the cross -- where they should be."

Some of the vintage letters were given to the archives of the local order of nuns for preservation, Cooley added.

The replacement of the 36-foot-high cupola to the tower attracted a small crowd to the Clark Street parish.

As the preparations for the crane lift advanced, excitement grew.

"This is wonderful," said Mary Sikora, a Sloan resident and parishioner of the church who stopped to watch. "I went to school here, I received the sacraments here -- so this is really special to me."

Shortly before the cupola was raised into the air, the Rev. Mark Kreis of the Pauline Fathers, the priests who serve the parish, spoke a few words of blessing and sprinkled the copper dome with holy water.

"Oh, God, bless this cupola, which will be put on our tower," Kreis prayed. "May it make our parish more and more beautiful."

The south tower cupola -- one of two matching adornments to the top of the mammoth Medina sandstone structure, which was built over several decades starting in 1898 -- was removed from the church for refurbishment last August.

Once it was taken down, renovators and church officials learned that the original cupola, also made of copper that had turned green over the decades, was too worn and weathered to save.

"We couldn't salvage any of it," said Jim Serafina, president of the Friends of Corpus Christi group, which has been working to save and refurbish the century-old site. "It wasn't even worth scrap -- there was nothing to save."

And so, the church raised enough funds to cover a total replacement -- meeting all the accuracy and replication standards demanded for structures that are historic landmarks.

The south tower project cost the church $566,000, a good portion of which was covered by grants from the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, said Serafina.

"It's all paid for," said Serafina. "We don't owe any money on it."

He joked: "It's the Catholic approach -- pay as you go."

Planning for the new cupola included design work by HHL Architects. General project manager on the job was Jim Ciancio of Allstate General Contracting. The rigging, or crane operation, Wednesday was done by Clark Rigging and Rental. Weaver Metal and Roofing constructed the metal exterior of the dome. Other work on the project was done by Highland Masonry, Community Steel and Jens Glass.

Ted Lownie, with the architectural firm, said the new cupola is good for another long period of the church's history.

"It's easily good for 100 years," Lownie said.

Next up for the parish will be the north tower, which will be similarly replicated.

To supporters of the parish, all the work -- while expensive and laborious -- is just a small token of appreciation for the glorious old building that has served their families for so long.

"It's a testament to our ancestors," said Byrd. "My grandmother was baptized here, in the '20s. When I walk into this church, it's like being at home.

"And to see it being restored -- it's amazing."