125-year-old stained glass windows tranform Anchorage cathedral

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It’s out with the old and in with the older for a new look at Holy Family Cathedral in downtown Anchorage. Renovations to the cathedral include restorations to the Stations of the Cross, new paint and new lighting, but the most eye-catching upgrade towers above the pews in the form of six 125-year-old stained glass windows.

“They could be older than that,” said Dominican Father Anthony Patalano, who is pastor of the cathedral.

“They could have been in a studio for a long time before they were purchased.”

The windows were installed in the historic Anchorage parish the week of April 11. Originally, however, they were crafted in Bavaria, and later purchased around 1891 and installed at Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Philadelphia.

Last year, the windows were removed from the Philadelphia church — now closed — and rescued by Holy Family Cathedral. The windows underwent intensive restoration by the studios of Beyer Stained Glass, also in Philadelphia.

“Our studio did the entire restoration from removing the windows (from the old church), bringing them back to our studio and completely dismantling every window,” explained Simon Grigsby, one of two artists with Beyer.

After the intricate glass panes had been completely cleaned, repainted, repaired or replaced, Grigsby and his partner Bryan Willette, the studio’s supervisor, went through the painstaking process of reassembly.

“We rebuilt them with new leading all the way through,” Grigsby said. An added challenge is that the original glass windows were too small to fit the window frames at Holy Family.

“We also designed and put this new blue and purple border around it so that it would fit these new window frames,” Grigsby noted.

The addition of the border was somewhat of a gamble in aesthetics, according to Father Patalano.

“That (choice in color) was picked up by the studio to compliment the artdeco look of the church’s design. It’s not heavily art deco, but it’s mildly art deco,” he observed. “At first I was very skeptical of the colors,” he said. “But now that I see them in place, they look good.”

The restoration of the windows, not only augments the decor of Holy Family with an intricate blend of color but the re-leading assures the windows another century of life. As for the theme of the windows, five of them encompass the joyful mysteries, and the sixth, an ornate rendition of Saint Therese of Lisieux, complements the others for her role as the patron saint of Alaska.

For many at Holy Family, the preservation and installation of the windows represent the time-honored role that art serves in the Catholic Church.

The windows reflect the theological idea that the faithful serve God in truth, goodness and beauty.

According to a December 2014 column in the Holy Family bulletin, “Glad Tidings,” writer and parishioner Theresa Bird noted that the movement to implement stained glass windows in churches stems from the European trend to build stained glass memorials, called “morbidity windows” for the deceased. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Germany led the charge in training and hiring artists to create such windows. A defined evolution in the development of the colors within glass panes came from the discovery of Francis Xavier Zettler, a visionary in the art of stained glass and the experimentation in vitreous paints, which allowed artists to add details such as the folds in clothing or shadows on faces of the angels and the saints. The artists painted on the glass like a painter would paint on canvas, and firing the panes in the kilns forever fused the glass in the colors.

Though there were dozens of prominent stained glass studios throughout Europe, the windows at Holy Family were produced by the Zettler Studio, making them a rare find. The fate of the lead-fused windows, had they been left standing in the Philadelphia church, would have resulted in their demise as the leading would have eventually failed under the weight of the heavy glass panes.

“We went there and we bought these windows for about $53,000 bucks,” Father Anthony said. It then cost about $650 per square foot to restore each of the windows, he added.

According to Letha Flint, longtime parishioner at Holy Family, those costs have been tied to sponsors, whose names will appear on plaques below them after the final renovations to the church are completed.

“There are also about 85 more “angelic” sponsors whose names will be on a brass plaque in the entry of the church,” said Flint, of the other renovations throughout the church.

The Stations of the Cross, meanwhile, have been cleaned and repainted. Flint said the windows on the east side of the church illuminate with the beauty of Alaska mornings and that the transit of the sun highlights the windows on the west wall of Holy Family in the late afternoon. Her assessment of the windows, after Grigsby and Willette had finished installing them in April, was that they will adorn the church in beauty for years to come.

“I saw the windows for the first time yesterday,” she said, “and they are truly stunning.”

'125-year-old stained glass windows tranform Anchorage cathedral'
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