The First Congregational Church undergoes a restoration of its richly-hued stained glass windows — preserving an invaluable local history
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Through the Ages
The First Congregational Church has been through numerous incarnations since the first meetinghouse was set, as the church fathers dictated, “like a Biblical city on a hill.” The stone church we know today was built in 1895, in the Gothic Revival style that redefined ecclesiastical architecture after the Civil War, and was substantially expanded in 1961. The present sanctuary is a soaring and elegant space in which the eye is drawn, inevitably, to the superb chancel windows, which were designed by the Willet Studio of Philadelphia (who also did the chapel windows) in vibrant shades of red and blue. The studio employed a rare technique — used in only a handful of churches in the country — in which sculptural elements of the glass are overlaid with gold leaf. When daylight fades to night, the windows glow with an inner fire.
“Unfortunately, stained glass has a shelf life of about eighty to one hundred years,” says Handley. The windows being restored include the chancel and the chapel windows, the south nave windows and the transept windows (at the back of the church), which date from 1896: the St. Cecilia window, the Home in Bethany window and the Head of Christ window, which were made in the Tiffany style of jewel-toned opalescent glass. They were manufactured at the Lamb Studio in Tenafly, New Jersey, the oldest stained glass studio in the country. According to legend, they contain the work of John Singer Sargent and the faces are particularly expressive, with the subtle flesh tones for which he was famed.
Think of stained glass as a giant jigsaw puzzle — a mosaic of colored and painted glass is set into grooved strips of lead, then reinforced with iron bars and anchored to the window frame. The labor-intensive process of restoring a window can take as long as three months. The work is being done by the Gil Studios in Brooklyn, which has won awards from the New York Landmark Conservancy and is known for its meticulous restoration of stained glass in buildings both public and sacred.
“They take it apart, every single piece,” Handley explains. “Then they clean the glass and remove all the old lead, any cracks are repaired, and then the windows are reassembled in new leading. And every 100 years or so you have to go through all this.”
After the massive chancel windows were removed for renovation, they were photographed, the image replicated onto transparent film, and the film laid onto clear glass inserts. The effect is remarkable — the colors are more pallid, to be sure, but every detail is there. “So instead of looking out at nothingness, or power lines,” says Handley, “we have what in essence looks like our window. It was expensive, but after we realized that we had a number of memorial services, big weddings — it just made sense. It works. People walk in and they think that’s our window.”
The windows consecrated in 1961 also needed restoration, and thereby hangs a tale. “What happened,” Handley explains ruefully, “is that back in the 1960s, when the new part was added on, with good intentions they put plastic covering over all the windows. And it was put on poorly — no ventilation — and it just created a hothouse. It literally baked the windows, and heat and humidity are the enemies of stained glass. So here we are, forty-eight years later, having to do this.”
He gestures to one of the south nave windows (on the left as you face the chancel), which has yet to be restored. “This may look fine,” he says, “but if you went outside and looked up at it, you would see it beginning to bow out.” That side of the church faces Long Island Sound and bears the full brunt of sun and weather (the windows facing north are shaded by trees and did not deteriorate as badly).
The five double-paneled windows along the south nave depict the history of Christianity and the Congregational church. In traditional brightly hued Gothic style, they speak of disciples and saints: St. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus and writing the Gospels while imprisoned by the Romans; St. Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds and the wolf of Gubbio. The secular martyrs who founded the modern church are there as well, and you can see William Tyndale being burned at the stake for issuing the first complete translation of the Bible in 1526. Martin Luther is in the adjacent panel, writing away. The fourth window is a primer of Colonial lore, from the Mayflower anchored off Cape Cod to sober-faced Pilgrims, to the Reverend Thomas Hooker, who, more than a century before the Bill of Rights, championed the separation of church and state.
When these windows were removed for restoration, a clever replacement was devised. “We brought in some plastic panels during coffee hour,” Handley says with a smile, “and everybody who wanted to did a little square. So rather than having just a blank slate there, we used these.” (The two replacement panels moved down the wall as windows were removed, restored and reinstalled.) One square, clearly drawn by a child and titled, “Jesus Loves Me,” shows an enthusiastic Savior exclaiming, “Yes, I do!”
The last of the windows should be finished and reinstalled in January. “Not in time for Christmas,” comments Handley, “but absolutely in time for Easter. And they should last another hundred years.”