Organization is training locals how to fix sacred art
By Tim Olson
Special to The Witness
DUBUQUE — Over the past half year, a group called the Dubuque Stained Glass Guild has been meticulously restoring the historic stained glass windows at the former St. Mary Catholic Church in Dubuque. The church, now known as Steeple Square, is being re-purposed as an event center that will serve the surrounding community. And the group restoring these windows is made up of trainees, all recruited locally, who, prior to 2016, had no experience with stained glass at all.
The windows at Steeple Square were created just over 100 years ago by craftsmen and women in the Munich, Germany, studios of F.X. Zettler. They were delivered to Dubuque just before the United States entered the First World War. To restore the windows, Steeple Square considered hiring a stained glass preservationist from outside the area to do the work. However, part of Steeple Square’s mission is to create vocational training opportunities in areas of historic preservation for members of the Dubuque community. So Steeple Square partnered with Heritage Works, Four Mounds and Northeast Iowa Community College to create a program that would train people from within the community to complete the job. To do this, the partners hired Mark Radina, a stained glass artist from Aurora, Illinois, to come to Dubuque and work with a group of five local visual artists and woodworkers. Artists were selected because they already possessed some of the skills that would be needed to work on the windows. Woodworkers were needed because, along with the stained glass windows, all the window frames would need to be restored. Additionally, a few more recruits were found by partnering with the Fountain of Youth, Opening Doors and the Elm St. Facility/Department of Corrections.
During the first phase of the project, in June of 2016, Radina worked closely with the group to restore windows in the two chapels on the south side of the church. The group learned how to safely remove the glass panels from the window frames, how to clean them, how to repair cracks in the glass, and how to paint and replace any pieces of glass that were beyond repair. Beside the difficulty of broken glass, the other common problem with older stained glass windows is that the lead came that holds the pieces of glass together can become brittle and begin to deteriorate from years of expansion and contraction. Radina taught the trainees how to assess this damage and how to tell if the lead can just be repaired or when the window needs to be taken apart and completely re-leaded. The trainees also learned how to cut glass and how to paint and fire it to replicate severely damaged pieces. Trainees replaced the storm glass and stripped, repaired and repainted the window frames. The window frames on the exterior of the church were in many cases in much worse shape than the stained glass, after 100 years of exposure to the elements.
The second phase of the project started in October of 2017. The Stained Glass Guild came back to restore six large windows in the main chapel, and this time, with a good deal of experience under their belts, they did most of the work themselves.
The next phase of the project, starting in the spring of 2018, includes restoring all of the windows in the towering church steeple. After that, all of the remaining windows are scheduled to be finished by 2019.
Although they still have a lot of work ahead of them, the guild is already looking beyond the Steeple Square project. They have set up a studio at the Key City Creative Center that is equipped to restore stained glass and windows from historic homes in general. The guild’s goal is to keep this studio open and to use the experience they’ve gained on the job at Steeple Square to preserve beautiful art glass windows in historic churches and homes throughout the area.
Part of what makes Dubuque unique is its historic neighborhoods and buildings. But, maintaining these historic buildings also presents unique challenges. Too many times homeowners overwhelmed with restoration problems, simply decide to replace historic windows rather than repair them. The art glass in these windows are either discarded or sometimes framed and sold, taking them out of their original context. The Stained Glass Guild would like to educate building owners and church councils about their options and provide a local resource, both for advice and as a contractor, that can perform the specialized work involved with repairing art glass windows. The Dubuque Stained Glass Guild hopes to preserve the art of stained glass windows in buildings across our region.
Olson is a member of the Dubuque Stained Glass Guild. Any parish interested in connecting with the guild can contact Craig Beytien at 630-926-5761.
A member of the Dubuque Stained Glass Guild works on repairing a window at Steeple Square, the former St. Mary Catholic Church, in Dubuque, as part of a restoration effort that will be ongoing until 2019. (Contributed photo)