Amateur artisans create glass masterpieces

2/2/2012

By Kara Witherow, Editor

Every Sunday for nearly 10 years, Louis Keene sat in his seat in the back corner of Woodbine United Methodist Church’s sanctuary and stared at the church’s four unfinished windows.

Five beautifully crafted stained glass windows graced the sanctuary’s south side. Plain, uncolored glass filled the four windows on the worship center’s north side.

After the sanctuary was built in the mid-1990s, church member Chris Fisette volunteered to make 10 stained glass windows. Congregants donated money and materials, and he got to work designing, building, cutting and soldering. Fisette made and installed four windows before he fell ill. Unable to complete the job, the colorful glass sat idle in his workshop.

As he looked at the windows week after week, Keene thought they should – and could – be finished.

“I kept thinking that we could do this,” said Keene, a lifetime member of the church. “But I wasn’t sure we knew how to do it!”  

One Sunday morning he decided to make it happen. Standing in front of the congregation, he explained his idea and asked for volunteers.

Carole Williams was one of about a dozen who offered to help.

“I thought it was a cool thing to do. It was something I’d never done,” she said. “Chris gave us a one night crash course in stained glass windows and that was all the training any of us had.”

No one in the group had prior experience working with stained glass. Keene, an electrician and contractor, knew how to solder, but the rest was learned by trial and error.

Williams tried her hand at glass cutting and found that she was pretty proficient. She became the group’s unofficial glasscutter, spending hours scoring and cutting the intricate pieces. More than 200 pieces of glass make up each of the sanctuary’s stained glass windows.

“There was a good three hour learning curve, and there was some blood lost to become a decent glass cutter,” Williams said with a laugh. “But we muddled through and got them done.”

One window was nearly complete when they moved it from Fisette’s workshop. The glass had been cut and put in place, but it hadn’t been soldered together. Once Keene soldered the window and moved it from the worktable it had laid on for years, he found a pattern underneath.

Finding the window pattern gave them confidence to continue.

The dedicated group of volunteers worked off and on for about a year and a half, at their convenience. It took about three months to complete their first full window, but as they gained experience and confidence, they were able to put them together more quickly. The tenth and final window, a small one in the church’s balcony, was finished in three nights.

“In the beginning we could tell whether it was a good day by counting the number of Band-Aids I was wearing,” Williams said. “By the end of it I didn’t require too many!”

The volunteers met in an unused Sunday school room, building friendships as they built windows.

They had such a good time together that, after finishing the sanctuary’s four stained glass windows, they decided to tackle the balcony’s six windows.

“When we finished the four sanctuary windows we looked at each other and said, ‘what are we gonna do now?’” Keene said.

The balcony windows face west, and afternoon sunlight pours into the pulpit area. With varying, odd sizes and no pre-made pattern to work from, they proved challenging. Scaffolding had to be built and patterns were made out of cardboard. Two of the windows feature red crosses and two have flames. The sanctuary windows depict Jesus’ life and crucifixion.

Finished and installed just before Christmas, the windows were a hit with church members and visitors alike.

“Now you have this cacophony of light and color coming in because it comes through the stained glass windows,” said Woodbine UMC pastor Rev. Don Wolfgang. “It makes the whole place beautiful, absolutely gorgeous, even more so than it already was.”

Keene is quick to give credit for the project’s successful completion to the entire congregation. Money was donated to purchase materials and tools. When a $120 glass grinder was needed, all Keene had to do was make known the need.

“I told a few people at church, and they started handing me the money,” he said. “We got the money one Sunday, $5 at a time. It was a total church effort. The whole congregation gets credit for these.”

The entire congregation has been blessed by and through this project, Rev. Wolfgang said.

“Our church struggled several years back and went through a rough time, and this has been one way, of many, where our church has really gelled and come together,” he said. “It has unified the congregation, has brought them together and it’s brought joy to the congregation.”

Despite the hours of work and occasional frustrations, the project was a labor of love, say Keene and Williams.

“Being a part of something a lot bigger than all of us was the coolest part of the whole process,” Williams said. “I couldn’t do all of it myself, and there wasn’t one person who could do it all. It took all of us working together to do it. It is so cool that God gave the opportunity to do something that will be part of the church long after we’re gone. Our kids and grandkids can look at the windows and say, ‘My granddaddy did that, or my grandmother did that.’ And it wasn’t some professional who made these windows, it was actually people who love and care for this church and, to me, the whole process was a big blessing.”