"People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within."

- Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

On a rare-for-this-spring sun-filled day, the stained-glass windows at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in downtown Missoula softly brighten the beautiful, 119-year-old interior of the brick building.

Only a much closer inspection will reveal cracked pieces and buckling at the tops and bottoms of windows that stretch 16 feet skyward. The lead that holds thousands of pieces of glass in place is oxidizing and deteriorating.

The windows produce a soft, golden glow inside the Pine Street church, save for one spot, near the altar, where a harsher white light beams in from outside.

That's because the stained glass in the opening is gone. All that remains is the Lexan protective covering.

When Mass was first said in the church back in 1892, regular glass was in all the windows.

"Can you imagine how bright it was when they were all that way?" asks parish administrator Mike Bloomdahl. "You would have needed sunglasses to go to church."

It wasn't the glare in parishioners' eyes that led to the stained-glass windows, however.

The clear panes were replaced more than a century ago, sometime before 1910, in an effort to protect from sunlight the church's beautiful frescos, painted by Brother Joseph Carignano.

The Lexan window coverings added on the outside in the 1970s to protect the windows themselves have clouded over, and now the only way to appreciate the stained glass is to enter St. Francis Xavier.

There, you'll find all but the one missing stained glass window.

It, frame and all, is in a garage on the other side of town.

Pretty soon, it will be in hundreds of pieces.

***

Dennis Lippert is just beginning the painstaking task of restoring the window, which was removed from the church last week, in his garage-turned-studio.

This was the only one of St. Francis' 13 largest windows that was not donated by or for someone more than a century ago, when they were purchased - for a turn-of-the-century price tag of $1,600 - to protect the artwork in the church, according to Wilfred Schoenberg's "Jesuits in Montana."

Information about where the stained glass came from, and who designed it, seems to have been lost over the past century.

The other windows all contain a small piece of stained glass noting who paid for it (John Lucy, Esther Wilson and others), or who it memorializes (people such as Peter Ronan and Christina Cyr).

The window Lippert is working on simply said "Saint Catherine" in its dedication pane, but a new donor who is paying for its restoration is dedicating it to Hilda Schilling Kreitzberg. Kreitzberg was born in Missoula in 1900 and died here 100 years later, in 2000.

Lippert hopes the new name is not the only noticeable change in the window.

He'd like to tackle all of them, not just the dozen other largest windows, but the many smaller stained glass windows found in the church, some 30 in all.

This one is something of a test run, he says, so that "we can see what we're getting into in terms of restoration," and so church officials can judge how well it turns out.

Restoring others, Bloomdahl says, will require more people stepping forward to foot the bill.

He and Lippert estimate the cost to restore all the stained glass in St. Francis would be $250,000 to $300,000, and would take two years.

"And we don't have that kind of money," says Bloomdahl, whose church is already involved in a capital campaign to raise funds to construct a "gathering space" that would add ramps and an elevator to make access to the church easier for people who can't climb the many steps to its entrance.

The stained-glass restoration is not a part of the capital campaign. But Bloomdahl says he has had inquiries from people interested in sponsoring more work on other windows.

***

Lippert, a Missoula architect, has been working with stained glass for 37 years.

"Mostly self-taught, through books," he says, but don't let that fool you.

He's been a primary mover in massive stained-glass projects, from a 21-foot diameter stained-glass dome filmmaker George Lucas had Lippert install in the library of the main house at Lucas' Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, Calif., to restoration in Montana's State Capitol, to a 700-square-foot project designed by Missoula artist Dana Boussard for Holy Spirit Catholic Parish's new church in Lippert's native Great Falls.

Each project is different, but all are intricate, detail-oriented jobs.

The first step at St. Francis was removing the window.

"We had to build a plywood platform to this shape," Lippert says, pointing at the 16-foot-by-3-foot-10-inch frame. "We attached it while the window was still up, put on a strong back and screwed in padding. Then we lowered it with a come-along."

The window itself weighed around 300 pounds, he estimates, and the platform added another 100 pounds to that.

It was transported on a truck to Lippert's studio, and the work began.

***

First step: putting paper to each section of the window and, with a pencil, rubbing out an outline of the design.

From that, an actual-size drawing of the window is made and laid out on a long bench identical to a second bench where the window rests.

Then each section of glass, some tiny as the grapes that make up part of the design, are cut away from the window piece by piece, and moved to the proper spot on the paper outline.

"So we can put it back together the right way when we're done," Lippert explains.

Once the hundreds of pieces are disassembled, each will be individually brushed and cleaned in either muriatic acid or denatured alcohol.

"We'll keep as much of the original glass as possible, and send out to match any cracked pieces," Lippert says. "Once each piece is cleaned, we'll match the thickness of the glass to the lead, reconstruct with new lead, get it puttied, cleaned and reinstalled into the original wood frame."

Nowadays, tin is mixed with the lead, making it more rigid and durable, and the cement used to attach the glass to it is stronger and allows for more expansion and contraction.

A stained-glass window restored today should be good to go for even more than another century, according to Lippert.

When it is returned to its proper place at the church - the restoration will take two to three months, Lippert estimates - the stained-glass window will get a new polycarbonate protective cover that won't cloud or yellow like the old ones have.

And then everyone can see what all of St. Francis Xavier's stained-glass windows could look like, if Dennis Lippert gets his hands on them.

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or by email at vdevlin@missoulian.com.

 

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