Basilica windows focus of hearing

City commission to decide whether stained glass will stay at Catholic cathedral

January 14, 2004|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

More than 35 people, their opinions sharply divided about whether Baltimores Basilica of the Assumption should replace nine historic stained-glass windows as part of a $32 million project to restore the cathedral, turned out last night for a city hearing that was to decide the projects fate.

The city's commission on historic and architectural preservation hadnt rendered a decision by late last night after hearing testimony from supporters and opponents of the restoration.

Among the critics who spoke at the meeting was Stuart Seipple, a graduate student who grew up in Baltimore and comes from an eighth-generation Catholic family who attended Mass at the Basilica when he was a child.

"Removing the stained glass is contrary to history and the will of many congregants," he said of the windows in the Basilica, the nations first Roman Catholic cathedral.

Leaders of the Basilica want to replace the windows, which depict tranquil scenes from the Old and New Testaments as well as pieces of Maryland history, with clear glass windows that are more in keeping with the original 1820s architecture of the cathedral.

Clear glass symbolizes the openness of the Catholic church and allows sunlight into the cathedral an occurrence welcomed by many in prayer, said proponents of the restoration plan.

A Jesuit priest, Eugene M. Geinzer, spoke in favor of the new windows: The building should illuminate where the people are.

Robert J. Lancelotta Jr., the Basilicas historic trusts executive vice president, said the new windows will help bring more light on the cathedral literally and figuratively.

"The Basilica shouldnt be Baltimores best-kept secret," Lancelotta said. "It should have national and international significance."

Leading the opposition to the windows is Baltimore lawyer John C. Murphy, whose father, Frederick Murphy, was the lead architect in the 1940s renovation that installed the stained-glass windows.

"You guys are making a great big mistake if you treat this as just an architectural building," he told the commission.

Those who think the Basilica's interior is too dark and gloomy welcome the planned return of skylights and glass window panes part of the original design. But Basilica officials anticipated a chorus of protest at last nights meeting, which represented the final hurdle for the Basilica restoration.

In 1821, the cathedrals presence on Baltimores highest hill proclaimed religious freedom in the newly formed republic and represented Catholics fleeing persecution in England. The Basilica is considered the finest intact work of the architect of the United States Capitol, Benjamin Henry Latrobe. (The Capitol was burned by the British in the War of 1812 and rebuilt.)

The colorful stained-glass panes depict scenes of Christ turning water into wine; the Sermon on the Mount; the first Mass held in Maryland in 1634; the first archbishop of Baltimore, John Carroll; and Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton, a Baltimore woman who later became a saint.

John G. Waite, the lead architect of the restoration, said the transparency of the window glass symbolizes open freedom of worship and creates a striking physical effect. It was a utilization of light never seen before, Waite said of the cathedrals original clear windows.

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