To glorify God, volunteers toiled months creating stained-glass windows for a Mount St. MAry's College chapel. His help may be needed to get them installed


October 18, 1997|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

EMMITSBURG -- Robert Terentieff is visited by three muses. He likens them to the ghosts of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," one each for the three divisions of time: past, present and future. Each, he says, contributes to his art.

But he can call forth more help than that. When Terentieff, an artist-priest at Mount St. Mary's College, undertook to create five stained-glass windows for the Pangborn Chapel on campus, he was aware of the demands this kind of art makes in terms of time and physical labor.

Terentieff has worked with stained glass for 20 years, long enough that he refers to himself as a "glasser." He has designed and installed two windows on the Knott Auditorium on campus, and has a commission to do 35 to 40 more for the college's huge physical recreation hall. Recently, several of his windows with biblical themes were installed at the Mary Taylor United Methodist Church in Milford, Conn.

So he put out the word, recruited widely, and they came: volunteers from the college's maintenance department, carpenters, secretaries from administration, students, food servers from the cafeteria, department heads. It was all very democratic; everybody worked together. Starting in October last year, they cut glass, soldered lead, followed Terentieff's complex designs -- symbol-rich, bright with color and infused with religious fervor.

They came to an atelier specifically set up for the windows project. They came at odd times, in the evenings, on weekends. Some contributed a little of their time, some a lot; some drifted away from the enterprise. About 20 remained from the start until this May, when the work was finished.

Then everything came to a halt. A decision was made at the college to put the windows on display, in a museum or gallery, before installing them permanently in the chapel. Also, money was needed to frame them.

That was the plan, but little was done to carry it forward. The windows haven't been shown off-campus, though there is some reported interest from a gallery in Frederick. Nor have they been framed, though the $5,000 needed to do so was just pledged last week by an anonymous donor.

For four months, the five windows, in two parts each, lay on the tables where they had been pieced together. The builders of these windows, the volunteers transformed into artists, are the more impatient over this situation.

"When you get a project finished, you want to see it up. You want to see it framed," says Bonnie Mitchell, an administrative assistant at the college, and one of the volunteers.

These people, she says, are waiting for a kind of completion.

A stained-glass window on a table is not unattractive. Up close, you can see the craft in it, the fusion of metal and glass, the spidery arabesque of lead and copper that holds the design together, its integrity. One can even be impressed with the inventory: the 7,000 cuts of glass, the thousand different colors and textures, the scallop shells embedded in the glass, the shark's teeth, the sea glass, the geode, the mineral stones, the crystal that once hung from a chandelier in New York's Plaza Hotel.

But the window cannot convey its full power until it is vertical, set up to where it can drink in the natural light. Then the art in the thing wakes up.

"You can't get an idea of what it looks like until you see the light coming through it at different times of the day," says Mitchell.

As of this writing, one half of one of the Pangborn Chapel windows has been framed and is standing upright. It is the lower portion of the so-called Priesthood Window (the others are the Passion, the Holy Spirit, the Mary, and the New Jerusalem Windows). In its vertical glass, the fish swim in the luminous sea, the bird flies, the pillars soar, the house is safe. It is what Terentieff hoped it would be when he started: a testimony to "the sanctity and sanity of one's belief." It is also a tribute to his parents, Helen Ann Terentieff, who provided the $10,000 for the materials, and his late father, Gustav.

Robert Terentieff was born in Stratford, Conn. He won't say when ("I won't tell. I'm vain"). He looks 50ish, but has been a priest for 35 years, 11 of them spent at this mountain campus near Emmitsburg.

He teaches art in the college's visual and performing arts department, the same sort of work he's done for 26 years. Terentieff is a huge man, approaching 300 pounds. His face is wide and bright red and his hair the color of mahogany. His eyes, set against that fiery context, glint a startling blue, like pieces of polished turquoise. His voice is as big as the rest of him, and he walks with a kind of shambling quickness.

He has eccentric tastes. He has embraced the color purple almost totally: The walls of his apartment are purple; it is illuminated by purple lamps. The frames of his eyeglasses are purple.

"It usually means the person who wears it, or likes it, has a combination of spirituality and humanness," he explains.

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