Letting Glory Shine In

After 164 Years, St. Alphonsus' Stained-glass Windows Being Restored

August 03, 2009|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

In its long history, St. Alphonsus Roman Catholic Church in downtown Baltimore has seen its share of saints, sinners and Baltimore weather.

The first two have been easier to accommodate than the third, which has taken its toll on the church. A costly renovation is under way to make amends.

A few days ago, workers climbed scaffolding and removed two fragile stained-glass windows from the church's nave, a step in the restoration of the 1845 building renowned for its lavish Gothic Revival interior, high altar and no fewer than 84 saint statues.

"It's a remarkable landmark where you can't help but experience a sense of history," said Monsignor Arthur W. Bastress, the church's pastor. "And, yet, on one rainy Sunday morning a while back, there was so much water pouring through the roof, all you would have needed was a cake of soap and you could have taken a shower in the side aisle."

The church, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was once the heart of Baltimore's German Catholic population and, later, home to Baltimore's Lithuanian community. St. John Neumann and Francis X. Seelos, a priest who is a candidate for sainthood, lived in the rectory adjoining the church.

For the past six years, the church has been undergoing exterior structural repairs (there are nine separate roofs in the U-shaped complex at Park Avenue, Saratoga and Pleasant streets). After stabilizing its 220-foot high steeple and accompanying spires, Bastress said, it was time to address the interior, including 32 stained-glass windows.

When the building opened in February 1845, an account in The Sun praised the church's nave windows' design, saying their art glass was "so traced as to render the effect very fine."

But decades of pollution (the building was once lit by illuminating gas), building settlement and exposure to the elements took a toll on the 164-year-old colored glass. About 20 percent of the 1,200 individual glass pieces in each window were broken.

"It's an excellent set of art windows," said glass conservator Gene Higgins, who is heading the restoration in his Middletown, Va., studio. "But the windows were clearly decaying. When the leading buckles, the glass tends to crack."

Higgins, who has restored glass in about 2,500 churches, said the St. Alphonsus windows were early examples of hand-painted American stained glass. The Sun's 1845 article said the windows were made in New York by "F. Thomas."

Cobalt blues, ruby reds and oranges predominate in the glass panels, which is also filled with decorative painting, including fleurs-de-lis, and Christian symbols.

Higgins said his staff carefully removes the windows from their original cast-iron frames and makes a full-scale detailed drawing of the glass pattern to serve as a key when individual pieces of glass are taken out of the frames. The glass is carefully cleaned and sections that must be replaced are painted by hand and fired at 1,200 degrees. In the final step, conservators replace the lead around each of the 1,200 pieces.

"The leading in a window lasts about 100 years," Higgins said. "The sun has a lot to do with the way the lead deteriorates and the sun is very hot on the Park Avenue side of the building."

He said that as the windows return to the church - three have already been restored using some replacement glass from Germany and Indiana - they will be faced by an extra layer of clear safety glass. He said the added protective layer would help retard the effect of ultraviolet light.

Bastress said that his congregation of about 400 and friends of the church have been generous in paying for the window restoration, which will cost between $800,000 and $900,000. He said the congregation was "amazed and delighted" at the initial efforts at window restoration.

"We don't have all the money yet, but we are moving ahead with the project," Bastress said.

He recalled an attorney in town for a convention visited the church for Sunday Mass.

"A couple months later, I got a letter from him with a check for $10,000," Bastress said. "He said he'd won an important legal case."

The church offers traditional Latin Mass on Sundays and priests hear confessions six days a week. In a booklet he distributes about St. Alphonsus, Bastress tells the story of how many downtown shoppers visited the church while on trips to the old Hutzler's, Hochschild's and Stewart's department stores before their closings more than 20 years ago.

"The stores are all gone, but St. Alphonsus is still standing. ? want it to last another 100 years," the monsignor said.

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