Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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Restoration project breathes new life into treasured stained glass windows of diocese’s oldest parish
Story and photo by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the Oct. 26, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)
Father Pat Kerst (left), pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Walla Walla, and Bob Healey, the artisan restoring St. Patrick’s stained glass windows. (IR photo)
For more than a year, Bob and Tina Healey, of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, have been spending two and-a-half days a week at St. Patrick Church in Walla Walla, helping restore the church’s stained glass, an artistic treasure dating back well over a century.
Founded in 1859, St. Patrick is the oldest parish in the diocese. The present church was completed in 1882. At that time, Walla Walla was the largest city in Washington Territory, larger even than Seattle, and neither Spokane nor the Tri-Cities existed yet. It should come as no surprise, then, that St. Patrick Church includes the oldest ecclesiastical stained glass in the Pacific Northwest.
The pastor, Father Pat Kerst, said that the stained glass restoration project was on a back burner for many years. “There has been an awareness of a need to re-do the windows for quite some time,” he said. “There are a bunch of broken panes that are very visible, plus there are large bowed areas in the windows. It just hadn’t risen to the top of the priority list.”
Father Kerst arrived as pastor in 2001. The following year, a parish maintenance committee was established. “We started prioritizing what we wanted to get done around the parish,” Father Kerst said. “The restoration of the windows rose to the top. Shortly after that, the parish received a big, undesignated bequest. What got us moving more seriously was that there were two companies in town working on windows at other churches, and unsolicited, they just came by and gave us what we came to see were very low bids.”
Around 2003, the capital campaign to build a new Bishop White Seminary was on the horizon for 2004, and parish leaders decided to “piggy back” on the seminary campaign the restoration project for both the windows and the church’s old organ. At the same time, the parish’s new activities center was still not paid for, so that was on everyone’s mind, too.
“In 2003,” Father Kerst says, “we hired a consultant, and she came and looked at the windows and said, ‘Here’s what you need to do.’ She gave us the names of three companies in the region. We solicited bids from all three.”
One company was eliminated when they wanted to charge to create a bid. Two remained.
One of those bids came from Bob Healey. Although his bid was not the lower of the two, the parish’s committee was very impressed with him after meetings and phone conversations. The contract for the work was signed in April 2005.
“The common wisdom,” said Father Kerst, “was, don’t take on a big project” with the diocese in bankruptcy. “But we had already had the ball rolling for about three years,” and much of the money to fund the project was already set aside.
Funding was not complete, however, “so we decided to do it in stages. We signed a contract for each stage as the money becomes available,” said the pastor. Helping fund the restoration was a foundation grant from Milwaukee, Ore., for some $15,000.
The stained glass windows in the church seem to have been installed at different times, but no one is positive about exact dates. “Various people are researching that,” Father Kerst said. It is certain that some windows were replaced after an arson fire in the church in 1916. Based on style, some think the sanctuary windows date from the 1920s.
The artisans doing the restoration work, Bob and Tina Healey, are lifelong Catholics. Bob has been a stained glass craftsman for more than 30 years. All the same, when it came to the restoration project in Walla Walla he encountered conditions he had never seen before. “Some of the glass was super-super thin,” Healey said, “like less than half the thickness of regular stained glass. Because of that there had been a lot of breakage. It’s so thin that even the wind breaks it.”
The Healeys found that most of the stained glass at St. Patrick came from France, England, Belgium, Germany, and a little from Koko-mo, Ind., where stained glass was first manufactured in the U.S. beginning in 1880. “This glass is very hard to match,” Bob Healey says. “We opted to change the glass to colors as close as possible to the original colors, unless it’s a very little piece, then we leave the original. Keeping everything as close to original as possible is our top priority. We want to recondition so the windows will last at least another 100 to 150 years. We’re using much better materials – stronger lead, stronger cement, and we’re installing the glass so it will expand and contract better.”
Years ago, clear plastic coverings, now cloudy and yellowed, were installed on the outside of each of the church’s windows, to protect the glass and act as a kind of storm window. According to Healey, “a tremendous amount of heat would build up between the stained glass and the plastic covering, and heat is the enemy of stained glass. The lead between the panes is soft, and it gets hot and moves. It’s like bending a coat hanger, and eventually it breaks. It stretches, and once it stretches it bows out.”
The process of restoring a stained glass window has several phases.
First come digital photographs of all the windows. The windows are numbered, and a schematic is created for the entire church.
Once they know where everything belongs, the removal of the windows begins.
The stained glass windows in most churches must be removed from the outside, said Healey, “but the windows of St. Patrick are very rare because they can be removed only from the inside.” Although the smaller windows can be taken out in one piece, the larger examples of stained glass must come out one panel at a time.
Rubbings of the windows are taken, preparatory to the creation of at least three patterns. One pattern goes to Healey’s Coeur d’Alene shop, one stays at the church, and one is stored elsewhere – sometimes a safe, if the pattern is valuable enough. “We have copies in different locations so that if there was a fire, or theft, there would still be copies to refer to,” he said.
The panels are carefully disassembled. Once the glass is out, each window’s woodwork is reconditioned. Metal parts are sandblasted, cleaned and, if necessary, re-welded. Gaps require “60 to 70 percent all brand new glass in the tops of these windows,” said Healey.
While the window is apart, Healey takes samples of the glass and goes shopping for replacements to match the original colors. “I drove 15,000 miles once,” he said, “for one church, to track down glass to match the original. I was all over the country. You can never get all the glass you need from one place.” Three shades of glass came from Bullseye Glass, in Portland, Ore.
The windows then are reassembled – soldered, cemented, cleaned. All broken glass is replaced. Before the panels are re-installed, reinforcing wires are soldered to each panel. “We also stack the panels on top of each other in such a way that all the weight doesn’t end up on the lower panels, which is how they did it in the old days,” he said. “The way we do it now, each panel has its own support. It takes about 250 hours to complete each large window.”
Close inspection of all the stained glass windows in the church soon turned up the fact that one set of windows, in the back of the church above the choir loft, are a very different style and quality from any of the other windows. “We assume they were meant to be temporary, but evidently the parish ran out of money, and they never were replaced,” said Father Kerst. So Bob Healey is designing new windows for that space. Probably these windows will include images of significance to the parish today; perhaps Our Lady of Guadalupe, to signify the increased Hispanic population of the parish, or some wheat, or grapes, said Father Kerst, “things that Walla Walla is known for today.”