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Tony Hage of Schmaus Construction installs new window trim Tuesday morning for one of the stained glass windows removed for repair at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church.

MICHAEL GALLACHER/Missoulian

Sunlight or not, there'll be a flash from the past inside St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church by the end of the week.

What on Tuesday was a 16-foot-high hole in the northwest corner of the wall will be filled by a restored stained glass window, recalling the glory of 1903 when it and some 29 others were first installed in the downtown Missoula sanctuary.

Instead of the opaque plastic exterior covering that was placed over all the windows in the 1970s, this one will have a clear glass protection that should cast a whole new light on the front altar.

"It'll be nice," said parish administrator Mike Bloomdahl. "And hopefully when we get this first window done, some people will step up and want to do the others."

The family of Hilda Schilling Kreitzberg is donating the first restoration, a project that local architect and stained glass artisan Dennis Lippert took on in April.

Kreitzberg, who died in 2000 at age 100, was born eight years after the north Missoula church with the landmark red steeple opened, but a few years before the stained glass windows were installed.

In an extensive account of St. Francis Xavier Church that ran in the Anaconda Standard on July 13, 1906, Pastor Lawrence Palladino said the interior of the church remained serviceable but unfinished for the first decade.

Joseph Carignano, a Jesuit brother and cook at Gonzaga College in Spokane, spent a year painting the beautiful frescoes on the church walls and ceiling, works that resembled those he produced at the mission in St. Ignatius.

Carignano finished in 1902, but it was recognized the paintings were in danger of damage due to the raw light that streamed through the plain glass windows. Thus, the stained glass project was commissioned, although it's not clear who produced the colored windows.

"The building as it stood when first opened cost $24,871 and a fraction," Palladino wrote. "The necessary furnishings and the finishing up of the interior, together with the stained glass windows, put in the latter part of 1903, entailed an additional expenditure of more than $6,000."

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On Monday and Tuesday, craftsmen Steve Schmaus and Tony Hage prepared the opening in the wall for the window. Taken down in one piece in April, and dissembled into hundreds of smaller glass sections in Lippert's shop, the window will be installed in five sections, one on top of the other.

Mike Schmaus, whom Lippert called a "contractor and woodworker extraordinaire," created a new frame for the protective exterior glass that will replace the plastic that was screwed in place in the 1970s.

Lippert refurbished the old window frame and will put it to the same use for another century or so.

What he at first thought would be a project of a couple of months has turned into more than six.

"I had some other things going, and part of this is experimental, too, to see what would be involved for the rest of the windows if we do them, so I can get a real good idea of the price and what's involved," Lippert said.

He's penciled out this one at something more than $14,000, he said.

One of the biggest problems was getting replacement glass for a window more than 100 years old. Lippert said he contacted half a dozen glass factories, and finally found two - one in Indiana and another in West Virginia - that were around way back when and had most of what he was looking for.

That process entailed sending in color samples and getting back glass that more often than not didn't quite match. It took several months alone.

Lippert tried to keep as much of the original glass as possible, and epoxied some of the pieces.

All the windows at St. Francis have oval or circular icons of holy figures. In this window's case, it was of St. Catherine. Lippert cleaned and restored her, and replaced the words "St. Catherine" in the donor box on the lower window with Kreitzberg's name. The window will now match all the others that were all sponsored by members of the St. Francis parish over the years.

It's the start and trigger of what the church hopes to be an extensive window replacement project.

"The design of these particular windows, the diamond shape, is the weakest design for stained glass windows," Bloomdahl said. "As the years accumulate, with the heat and cold and whatnot, the windows themselves lose their stability and strength, and it's just time for them to be redone."

There are bulges in the glass now, and you don't want to wait until the glass starts cracking.

"The sooner we can have the windows restored, the better it will be," said Bloomdahl. "Now would be the most economical time to do it, before the major damage shows up."

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