Sunday, January 29, 2012

Against the Dying of the Light

Here are the images from my Pecha Kucha presentation, "Against the Dying of the Light: Stained Glass Windows and the Passing of an Old World."  The text is what I plotted out ahead of time, but is not exactly what I said, though I tried to touch on the major points in the twenty seconds allowed for each slide.

I live in Nanticoke, about 25 miles southwest of Scranton. It's a small city that was once a coal mining town settled by immigrants, many (but not all) of them Polish. It's a city full of churches, many (but not all) of them Roman Catholic. (The church in the foreground is – was – St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church, and had been closed for several years when I took this picture in 2008.)

St. Francis Church was one of the older parishes with one of the newer structures. Unfortunately, a leaking roof resulted in structural damage which, according to independent estimates, could have been repaired for a fraction of the amount quoted by the Diocese of Scranton. But at the time the damage was discovered, parish consolidation plans were already in the works. And so the order came down from the bishop's office: the parish was to consolidate with nearby St. Joseph's, and the church would be closed and demolished.

The heartbreaking thought of a place that had been a religious, cultural, and social landmark for so many people in Nanticoke being condemned to demolition threw the coming diocese-wide parish consolidation plans into a stark light. How many more beloved places would be closed, shuttered, and eventually reduced to rubble?

My home parish is St. Mary's, formally known as Our Lady of Czestachowa. It's a small and humble church, set atop the highest point in the city. The structure has stood since the first years of the twentieth century, and generations have been baptized, married, and mourned within its walls. I served as an altar boy there from first grade through high school. From my earliest days I was fascinated with the stained glass windows of the church. If this building were to close, the sight of those windows would be gone forever. Could anyone do anything to preserve them?

I had thought about this for a while when one Saturday I found myself sitting in a pew in the church, waiting for my cousin to arrive for her wedding. I thought, what heck, why not? Why wait for someone else to professionally photograph these windows, when I can get started on it right now? And so I snapped this first image of the portraits of St. Francis of Sales and St. James with the mid-day October sun shining through the window.

I soon found more opportunities to gather photos, before Mass, after Mass, and once when the church was left open for people to come and offer prayers regarding the coming consolidation. When I arrived that day, camera and tripod in hand, I discovered that I had the church to myself. After saying a few prayers, I decided to do my praying with a camera, and set about the task of photographing the windows in the empty church, lit by the early-afternoon sun.

White sunlight strikes the windows from the outside and is filtered by the colored and painted glass, painting the interior of the church in the colors of the windows. These windows are over a century old and have stood the test of time, though paint has flaked off in places, grime has built up in others, and in at least one case a well-placed shot from a BB gun has resulted in a hole in one of the uppermost reaches of the windows, a hole that has been patched for decades.

The windows are pieces of history, and testaments to the history of the parish. Each one was financed and donated by a specific individual or group. All of the Ladies of the Rosary who collected funds to pay for their window are long since deceased; and even the children of St. Mary's who collected pennies and nickels and dimes to finance their window have grown old, died, and been buried for decades.

Each window is unique. Each piece of glass is different, an inhomogeneous blend of colors and opacities. These striations exist in three dimensions, not just two, so what you see depends entirely on the path that light takes from its source to the observer. Each window will look different depending on the time of day, the day of the year, the weather outside, the lighting inside, and the angle at which the viewer is looking at the window. 

And so the windows have become part of the churchgoing experience. Seeing the windows at sunrise is completely different from seeing them at sunset, and both are completely different from seeing them at night, when no light is coming from the outside and they are lit entirely by reflected light. Yet all those experiences, all that beauty, all the uniqueness yet to be experiences could be snuffed out with a decision from the diocese.

This is the first pair of portrait windows as you enter the church. The figures are each about five feet tall. At the bottom of each window are the donor plaques. (This pair was presented by the architects who designed the church.) Above that is a uniquely-colored panel that opens for ventilation. Above that, more decorations, then identifiers for the subjects in the windows, then the portrait windows themselves, then more vents (accessed by chains), a pair of decorative arches, and finally a small round window.

Looking more closely at the figures, we see St. Leo, formerly known as Pope Leo I, a fifth-century pope who holds a three-barred crosier actually dates from the Middle Ages - as does the plate armor worn by his neighbor, St. George, who was a figure from the third century. Most of what is “known” about St. George is legendary and likely apocryphal, including the story of his battle with a dragon – which apparently has escaped into St. Leo's portrait and is literally hiding behind his skirts.

Each pair of windows is topped with a round window, about ten inches across and about twenty feet off the ground, featuring an image and in most cases some text. The size and placement of these windows makes them nearly impossible to see clearly without visual aid from anywhere but the choir loft. The images do not seem to have a consistent theme, nor, for the most part, do they appear to be related to the portraits below. Some of these images have fared badly over the years, with some of the lettering flaking off and becoming unreadable.

Windows as old as the church, windows that have cast their light down on generations of parishioners. Ancient names preserved for posterity. Unique and ever-changing plays of light. Works of art perhaps beyond the skills of modern craftsmen. All this could be lost with a single decree. There are many things in this world that we take for granted that are passing away forever. If we have the power to preserve these things for future generations, do we not also have an obligation? Anyone with a camera can do the same thing I did. Anyone with a blog can share their images with the world.

When I first began posting my stained glass images to my blog, Another Monkey, a tattoo artist friend suggested that I should consider commemorating these windows with a tattoo. If I were to get one, it might be this one, of a smug-looking St. Michael the Archangel with the Devil under his feet. But then I thought about it: this window has been around for over a century. Any tattoo I might get would last another forty or fifty years. How transient a tribute to something that has been around for so long!

St. Mary's was not the only church in Nanticoke facing consolidation and closure. St. Stanislaus was one of the oldest churches in Nanticoke, and the first of three Parishes that were ethnically Polish. In the 1990's it underwent major renovations and became a bright, airy place, with modern stained-glass windows that admitted copious amounts of light. This photograph was taken on June 6, 2010, after the final Mass held there.  St. Stanislaus is now closed.

Holy Family Church was once the chapel for the St. Stanislaus Orphanage. It was a small but remarkably comfortable and airy place, with this rose window featuring images of the four Evangelists casting its light from behind the altar. This image was taken after the final Mass there, on June 20, 2010. Holy Family is now closed.

Holy Trinity was formed in the late 19th century by parishioners who broke away from St. Stanislaus. It is an enormous, opulent, ornate church. This stunning window is set above the main entrance to the church and faces East, and glows so much thatthe glass might be heavily doped with uranium. Holy Trinity no longer exists as a parish, but the building lives on as the primary worship site for Nanticoke Catholics, rechristened St. Faustina Kowalska parish.

We may be helpless to stop the passing of the old world, but we can at least create a record of its existence to share with future generations – if only to say “This is what you missed. We had it and we let it go away. Sorry about that.” But the time to do that is now, before these places are closed, and demolished, and turned to piles of rubble. 

And what of St. Mary's? What of the church that I grew up in, where I served as an altar boy? What of the windows that have looked down on generations of parishioners like glowing illustrations from a book?

St. Mary's no longer exists as a parish, but the building lives on as the Alternate Worship Site for the Parish of St. Faustina Kowalska. Its continued existence is not assured; very soon the diocese will assess whether a secondary site is necessary at all, and depending on that assessment, the building itself may be closed for good, and the sight of these stained glass windows may be forever denied to future generations – as has happened at the parishes of St. Francis, St. Stanislaus, St. Joseph, and Holy Family. For now, if you wish, you could still see these windows with your own eyes. In the future, perhaps all that will be left will be photographs and memories.


Cheri Sundra said...

It is sad to see the decline of so many of our institutions that used to hold our communities together….I attribute it all to the industrial decline in our country. It’s so heartwarming to hear about the care that was put into the building and maintaining these churches just two or three generations ago…..

Those windows are works of art in and of themselves--it’s a shame that they can’t be preserved & displayed somewhere. But the issue is always space….we can never preserve the pieces of the past because we just don’t have the room. (This is why it’s so important for people to support the efforts of the local historical societies—so they can expand & afford more storage space). But I think that for now, you’ve come up with the perfect solution in documenting these beautiful windows through photography….

Chuck Anziulewicz said...

The topmost photo in your post, of St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church, holds special significance for me as it was the church my mother's side of the family originally belonged to. When I was a child in the 1960s, and our family would drive to Nanticoke to visit my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, my grandpa was sometime take me to St. Nicholas with him on Sunday. This was at a time when the entire service was still sung in Ukrainian. In fact it was SO steeped in tradition that the women sat in the pews to the left of the center aisle, and the men sat in the pews to the right. At the front of the church were large figures of Joseph and Mary, each with a electric green neon halo. I have never been a religious person myself, but I felt rather sad when the church closed. How I would love to go inside and see the stained glass windows once again.