We sit amongst stories. When we are inside our church walls, clouds of witnesses, visible and invisible, surround us, covering from beyond two thousand years to this very day.
While stained glass windows were designed for the illiterate—texts for those who had no books—our windows can be much more for us. They witness to multiple donors and multiple recipients of the dedications, testifying to faith, admiration, devotion, love of family and friends. There are known and unknown moments and personal touches, which this article can only hint at. It is not too much to say that our church’s community history is contained in the glowing pieces of glass, story upon hidden story.
First, let’s look at the stories we will most likely recognize: with every church visit, we are walking through the Bible, starting at the beginning and end up at the end. We enter through creation, with Adam and Eve, the garden—the story on either side of the big front double doors. Over the two smaller front doors are the friendly and the unfriendly beasts of creation and the slit windows have Old Testament miracles.
We walk into the church with Isaiah, and in the church we are in the company of Christ, above us. In the pews, we are amidst Christ’s parables and miracles, paired, two by two. These slit windows are a small 55 by 8 inches, and the artist’s genius permits a whole story in that space: in the prodigal son window (a parable said to show the essence of the Gospel), nearest the entry door on the left, the artist puts all the petulance, hurt, and anger of the elder brother, back turned, hand on hip, in a 9-inch figure, which tells it all.
Another small window, the coin in the fish’s mouth, has a personal and little known story behind it—a young single mother in financial distress. The window was chosen by her children, then grown, because “Mama seems to find the coin, no matter how hard the times are.” Another seldom-noticed window feature ⎯ in the Annunciation window, Mary is enclosed in a teardrop.
More of the less-known elements: Through the persistence and generous gift of Barbara Preston, the first and last big (clerestory) windows came about—The Annunciation and Pentecost—the first stained glass windows in the church. Barbara figured that once they were in place the intervening stories of Christ’s life would be filled in, and that’s what happened.
The original designer, Joel Reeves, died unexpectedly, and after a contest, artist Peggy Swayze (whose husband was one of the church architects), and who was a member of the congregation, was chosen to continue. She started in 1975, and work on the windows, the mosaic baptismal alcove and other items, continued for 27 years. This involved thousands of hours of design, production, thought, and commitment. Peggy will be quick to tell you that the designs did not come out of her head, or the continuous and thorough research she did, but “the Lord intervened,” and we are the beneficiaries.
Much of Peggy’s early work took place in her studio in the education building. In what was unused space at the time, a refrigerator, easel, paper and paints, and an ever-present dog, an elegant black Afghan named Spider, accompanied her. For a few years she also taught art in the Day School, and could be seen upon occasion sitting on the sidewalk with intent preschoolers listening and watching as she drew pictures in chalk on the cement.
We are familiar with the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words.” If so, we are sitting amongst 70,000 words, but Peggy has the last one: “70, 000 words is way more than we need. I find that when confronted with what the Good Lord allowed Swayze and me to do, I am speechless.”
Pat Royalty, December 2004