Friday, November 07, 2008

Last Chance to See: Stained Glass Edition

In 1985, Douglas Adams (the bestselling author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series) and Mark Carwardine set out on a series of expeditions to locate and document some of the world's most endangered animals. The book that was later made of these adventures was called Last Chance to See, a title that urged readers to recognize the imminent threat of extinction faced by these animals. See them now, it urged, before it's too late. Save them now, before it's too late.

It was too late for some of these animals. The Baiji Dolphin was probably past the point of no return well before Douglas and Mark made their trip to the Yangtze River, but the Three Gorges Dam sealed its fate. The Northern White Rhino was still "in with a chance," as they say, as long as intensive conservation efforts could be maintained and something like, say, intensive poaching efforts could be avoided. The Northern White Rhino is now extinct in the wild.

Sadly, Douglas Adams died in May of in 2001. But others carry on his work. Mark Carwardine and Stephen Fry are shooting a sequel to the original expeditions, and Gareth's Another Chance to See has kept the torch burning and the updates coming.

Animal species aren't the only things that go extinct.

Catholic churches in the Diocese of Scranton and throughout the U.S. face the prospect of imminent parish consolidation. Populations have shifted, fewer men are becoming priests, and economic pressures are making it financially infeasible to keep underperforming parishes open.

When parishes consolidate, churches close.

Some of these churches are well over a century old. Many of them retain aspects of their original construction that may very well qualify them for historical landmark status. Some, like my own church of St. Mary's (Our Lady of Czestochowa) in Nanticoke, contain works of liturgical art that are both priceless and highly immobile, like the stained glass windows that line the walls and bear the names of the donors - many of them historical figures who played major roles in the history of our region.

What fate awaits these churches? Some will remain open. Some will be kept inactive but in reserve, spending most of the year closed to public and parishioners alike and opened only for special occasions. Others will be closed permanently. Some will be deconsecrated and sold, after their liturgical ornaments - such as their stained glass windows - are removed. Some will fall into disrepair, fall victim to fire or vandalism or the ravages of entropy.

In another place and time, the stained glass windows of St. Mary's church in Nanticoke would be a major tourist attraction, drawing visitors from far and wide to marvel at their beauty and the skill of their manufacture and the richness of the symbolism built into each image. (That fellow in the window on the left in the picture above is St. Leo. Read up on him to find out who the dog-dragon at his feet might be.) But in the here and now, these are just ornaments in a church that is probably slated for closure.

In the Hudson Valley of New York there is a tiny church known as the Union Church of Pocantico Hills. This small, simple structure is exceptional for two reasons: its construction was partially funded by the Rockefeller family, and it contains nine stained glass windows by Marc Chagall and one by Henri Matisse. Visitors come from all over to see them. I've been there, twice. They're beautiful. They're worth the trip.

So are the windows of St. Mary's.

St. Mary's, however, is not set up as a tourist attraction. For security reasons it is usually kept locked when services are not being conducted. But the Union Church of Pocantico Hills literature notes that the best time to observe and fully appreciate the beauty of church windows is during a service, in the company of the congregation.

How much longer does St. Mary's have to be open? How many more services will be held under its steeple? How many more opportunities will people have to visit this church and marvel at the beauty of its windows?

The answer is, I don't know. I have no idea. Not yet, anyway.

In The Stained Glass Project I am making an effort to photograph and document these windows, to save them for posterity and share them with the world. This started out as a personal wish, a "...wouldn't it be nice if somebody..." sort of plan, which only started to become a reality almost on a whim when I found myself in the church, camera in hand, waiting for my cousin to begin her march down the aisle. At the moment I'm doing it entirely on my own, without official approval from either the parish priest or the Bishop of Scranton. I will carry on with it as long as I am able. I encourage others in other parishes do do the same thing, for as long as their churches are open and the opportunity exists.

It may be a matter of weeks, or months, or perhaps years, but someday the doors of St. Mary's will be closed and locked for good. And then the only way to appreciate these works of art will be from the outside, looking in.

So hurry, hurry, hurry. Do not miss what may be your final opportunity to gaze upon these works of art with your own eyes. Masses at St. Mary's are currently held Saturday evenings at 5:30 PM - too late to appreciate the windows at this time of year - and Sunday mornings at 11:30 AM. Directions to St. Mary's can be found here. Stop in, attend Mass, throw a few dollars in the collection basket. On the way out at the end of the services tell the priest how much you appreciate having the opportunity to see St. Mary's stained glass windows for yourself.

This may just be your last chance to see.


Andrew said...
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Anonymous said...

I represent a stained glass company and have been called in to inspect many churches making that final decision to close and dispose of the windows and other salable items. The thing is there is something that can be done.

Understand that in Scranton as in other older American cities things are changing and churches will close, change denominations or completely be demolished. Right now There are growth areas in the west like Colorado where the windows could be sent.

Let's also remember that New Orleans and other Gulf coast cities are still trying to rebuild. Wouldn't being a true christian involve donating the windows to another needy church?

Just this week I was told about a church in Texas that had replaced the original ornamental windows with new ornate pictorials and they fought over keeping the original windows in storage. It should have been an easy decision to donate them to a church in need.

We can't always keep things as they were but we can be good shepherds in how they change. JIM