Preserving the stories of stained glass

Churches take great care to protect their fragile -- and valuable -- works of art


Jeanne Gettle has spent many Christmases sitting in the hand-carved oak pews at St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Abingdon, taken by the array of red and blue flecks of light emanating from the stained-glass windows.

"Every time I see the windows I see something new," said Gettle, a church member from Edgewood. "I've never seen anything like them. They give me such a sense of peace."

Many Harford County churches are adorned with stained-glass windows, but maintenance and preservation costs have prompted many newer churches, or churches that replace windows, to move toward contemporary designs rather than the ornate 19th-century windows.

"Stained glass is handcrafted the same today as it was a thousand years ago," said James Hauser, vice president of Willet Hauser Architectural Glass in Philadelphia. "But design styles have changed significantly and are tied into labor costs. A man doesn't earn 22 cents an hour anymore."

Yet some Harford churches, such as St. Mary's, carry on with their traditional windows. The glass works at St. Mary's are regarded as the rarest in the county. They are the only complete set of windows in the nation designed by William Butterfield, one of the most important English architects of the Gothic Revival movement.

Shortly after construction of the church began in 1848, the Rev. William Francis Brand, the founder of St. Mary's, commissioned Butterfield, a longtime friend, to design 15 windows.

The precise dates of the windows' creation are unknown because a fire in St. Mary's rectory destroyed church records. But church members know that the Gibbs Studio in London created them sometime between 1850 and 1900. During that span, the studio built the windows gradually, as donors stepped forward to pay for them. An additional window, depicting St. Michael, was a gift of appreciation to the church from Gibbs Studio.

"Stained-glass windows were originally meant to tell stories to people who could not read about the birth and death of the Messiah," said the Rev. Bill Smith, the rector at St. Mary's, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.

The Butterfield pieces depict the Virgin Mary and tell the story of the life of Jesus.

The first set of the windows was impounded in New York City for duty tax. Members of St. Mary's parish lobbied the federal government and a law was passed allowing church art to enter the country as fine art and be exempt from duty taxes.

After installation, regular maintenance isn't required until the windows are between 100 and 125 years old, Hauser said, when the lead has to be replaced. Labor costs can be $100 or more an hour, depending on how many pieces of glass were used and whether the windows are painted and fired.

Smith had the centennial work done when he came to the church in 1972. Additional upkeep is relatively routine. But there are exceptions, he said, such as the time a hunter accidentally shot a hole in the large window at the back of the church and patched it with a nickel and tar.

"That's my favorite repair," Smith said. "We're going to leave it alone."

Routine maintenance is done as needed and usually entails cleaning. Even this requires craftsmen.

"The windows should only be cleaned by experts," Hauser said. "If you don't know what you're doing, you can rub the paint off. You have to check the stability of the paint. If it's sound, then it can be cleaned with soft sponges and cloths. Sometimes it has to be cleaned with cotton swabs or can't be cleaned at all."

In the 1980s, someone kicked out one of the windows, breaking it into many pieces. Smith contacted Willet Hauser to fix it.

"They swept up all the pieces and laid them out like a jigsaw puzzle and put it together again," Smith said. "We had photos of the windows and they were able to use those to rebuild it. But there was some divine intervention. Not one hand, foot, or face was broken in the window."

A series of vandalism incidents forced Smith to cover the windows with bulletproof glass, which is common at many churches.

"It's a shame because, on the outside, the windows are an eyesore," said Smith. "The outside cover windows have a white residue buildup on them and you can't see the stained glass from outside. But they had a replacement value of over $1 million back in 1972, which would be even more now. So we have to protect them."

For Christmas season services, many Harford churches decorate to highlight the windows. At St. Mary's, a spotlight is put on the windows depicting the Nativity for evening Masses during the Christmas season.

"During the day, the sunlight does it for us, but at night we light the window up with a spotlight," Smith said. "It looks beautiful. You can see the light from a distance."

In Forest Hill, Christ Episcopal Church has a set of traditional windows created in 1875 that also depict the life of Christ.

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