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LET IT SHINE: St. Patrick's stained glass windows need $500,000 restoration

BISBEE — The stunning stained glass windows inside St. Patrick Roman Catholic Church calm the soul; they are rich, colorful depictions of the life of Christ from the moment of his birth, to his crucifixion and ascension into Heaven.

The 30 windows, made up of 2,377 square feet of stained glass, are in dire need of restoration and cleaning. However, it’s a project that has never been undertaken, said the church’s pastoral administrator and deacon Tony Underwood.

But this is no ordinary window cleaning. This is a window cleaning that costs $500,000.

And St. Patrick Church does not have the money to pay for the project, which will be done by the descendants of Emil Frei, the Bavarian stained glass artist who designed and installed the windows in Bisbee in 1915.

“When people enter St. Patrick and gaze at our windows, the scriptures come to life,” Underwood said. “They (the windows) have left a legacy ... Our stained glass windows are in need of some very important maintenance and restoration.”

Right now the church is in fundraising mode, Underwood said. Grant applications are being written and parishioners are being asked to donate what they can, no matter how small.

Local artist, production designer and videographer Michael Page — who has designed sets for the Oscars and most recently for the Grammy Awards tribute to Aretha Franklin — has been filming a short documentary at and about the church.

The film will be distributed worldwide, Page said recently, with the hopes of raising money for the church.

Page, who lives in Bisbee, was in the church photographing the windows so he could use them for one of the set designs for Grammy special on Aretha Franklin this past February.

He said he was in awe of the beauty of the windows and was approached by Underwood, who told him about the restoration/cleaning project.

“I was in here and I said, ‘Oh my gosh look at all these windows,’” Page said. “I went over to Tony and told him how amazing these windows were. He called me later and told me about the project and I told him I would do a promotional video about the windows so we can raise money.”

The restoration/cleaning will begin in the winter of 2020, Underwood said, and will take three years because it has to be done seasonally.

Aaron Frei, great, great-grandson of Emil Frei, talked about the project from his office in St. Louis. The younger Frei, 39, exuded pride in his family’s history. He is the president of Emil Frei & Associates, the concern started by his great-great-grandfather in 1898.

Since that time, the company has designed and installed stained glass windows for 4,000 to 5,000 churches in the U.S., a conservative estimate, Frei said.

When the project takes off next year, it will probably involve seven to eight people and will cost about $350,000, Frei said.

The remaining $150,000 is the cost of structural work and painting of the windows. That part is not done by the company, Frei said.

The painstaking process will include replacing oil-based putty sealants on the windows with silicone. The sealants help keep water out, Frei said. Next, the windows must be examined to determine if there are any cracks or shutters. Then the diffusion glass that is covering the windows will be removed and replaced with quarter-inch tempered glass.

“It’s going to be a time-consuming process,” Frei said. “This is a 15th-century craft. It’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears.”

Currently, the splendor of the church’s windows cannot be seen from the outside because they’re covered with the diffusion glass. Underwood said he hopes the windows can be lit from the inside at night once the restoration/cleaning project is done, so they can act as a beacon.

“That way St. Patrick’s can glow as a jewel here on Higgins Hill,” Underwood said. “It will be a jewel that all the townspeople can enjoy and take pride in.”

Father Joseph Saba, now retired, is a Bisbee native who attended St. Patrick School as a child and went to mass at St. Patrick Church regularly. Saba is campaign chairman for the fundraising efforts. He was most recently the chaplain at St. Mary Hospital in Tucson.

As a child, Saba always marvelled at seeing the windows at night before they were covered with the diffusion glass some years later. It was his idea to light them up once the project is finished.

Page interviewed Saba for the church documentary and asked him what the restoration/cleaning project means to him.

“Our windows will be back to where they were when they were first installed,” Saba said. “The windows are liturgical art. We’re entrusted with the care and preservation of our beautiful church. Our commitment to the window restoration project is the legacy we can leave for future generations.”

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LOOKING FOR A BUYER: Tombstone HS still on the market, 13 years later

TOMBSTONE — It was 13 years ago that the old Tombstone High School building was boarded up and abandoned.

From 1922 until its last graduating class in 2006, generations of students walked through the stately old Victorian-style building on Fremont Street.

The school, which was deemed outdated by the state School Facilities Board (SFB) because of a number of deficiencies, was replaced with a new school along Highway 80 just northeast of town. The first group of students started classes there in the 2006-2007 school year.

Since then, Tombstone Unified School District has attempted to sell the landmark building, which sits on 4.5 acres near the town’s historic district. About five interested parties have considered purchasing the property, all promising to breathe new life into the historic building, but none have materialized for different reasons.

So it continues to sit boarded up and empty.

“It’s sad to see it in this condition,” said John Escarcega, a fourth-generation Tombstone resident who graduated from THS in 1953 when he was 16. A former THS coach and teacher, Escarcega’s wife, Irma, also taught at the high school. They were among some 500 alumni who walked through the old school’s halls during a “Final Tour” event organized by the Tombstone Booster Club on July 27.

“It’s too bad no one has come in to renovate the building after all these years. I hate to see it in this kind of disrepair,” John Escarcega said.

Donna (Kroft) Sands, a 1975 alumna, had similar comments after touring the building.

“It’s been fun to walk through the school and see it again after all these years, but also kind of sad to see the condition it’s in,” she said. “Hopefully, the school district will be able to sell it before much more time goes by.”

Why is old THS so difficult to sell?

“That’s a question I hear all the time,” said TUSD Superintendent Robert Devere. “As much as all of us would love to see someone purchase the property and do great things with the building, there are a lot of challenges tied to it.”

First of all, the building was built to house a school, and to use it for any other purpose would require major reconfigurations to the rooms, explained Devere, who added that most people who have looked at the building really like it.

“The building is made of steel reinforced concrete and brick, with no plumbing in the main building,” Devere said. “Because of the difficulty of bringing in plumbing, it makes reconstruction to the main building difficult for a hotel, convention center or restaurants.”

Drainage plumbing for the building presents another challenge, because it’s going to be extremely difficult to put drainage plumbing through the walls, Devere said.

“Because most of the walls in the building are concrete, reinforced steel and brick, it would take a lot of engineering to move walls and reconfigure rooms in the building to make it suitable for anything but a school.

“When anyone looks at the property, we tell them this is what they’re up against. While we would love to sell the property, we want to be honest with folks.”

When asked how many times potential sales have fallen through, Devere said the latest offer and contract — which was anticipated to go through sometime in August — marked the fifth potential sale.

“I know three of those got all the way through the signed contract stage, but I’m not sure about the other two,” he said. Three of the offers had earnest money in place.

The asking price

The school district hopes to sell the property for $850,000. Along with the main building, tennis court and gymnasium, the property extends from Sixth Street to the abandoned Eighth Street that the district owns.

“All of the buildings as well as the football and baseball field are included in the sale, which is about four-and-a-half acres,” Devere said.

“We’ve had people who wanted the property for an event venue where they would hold rodeos, concerts and restaurants, one of the interested buyers wanted it for a winery and whiskey distillery, and others were interested in turning it into a hotel.”

The school district has listed the property with three different brokers that have advertised the property nationally, Devere said.

At one time, Barbara Highfield, former owner and designated broker of Tombstone Real Estate, was contracted to list the property.

“I had entered into a five-year contract with the district,” said Highfiled, who has since sold Tombstone Real Estate and moved out of state. “When there was an interested buyer, it was my job to help the school district negotiate the contract. Offers fell through for different reasons. The school district owns the property — and because school districts cannot carry a mortgage — we could not do owner-financing to get a loan.”

Since the abandoned school does not produce income, Highfield said no lenders are willing to loan the money needed for the sale, requiring potential buyers to make a large down payment to secure a loan for the property.

On top of that, the old, outdated building is not up to code.

“This means the buyer would have to invest a lot of money into the property itself in order to bring it up to code,” Devere said. “This is after coming up with a large down payment for the property.”

Positive features

While selling the school property has its challenges, both Devere and Highfield point out a number of positive features.

“Everyone who sees the building immediately points to how beautiful it is,” Devere said. “It’s a solidly constructed, historic building which was built by Trost and Trost architects, a very well known architectural firm in this part of the country.”

Much of the woodwork and windows are still in place and functional, he added.

The property is located on both Highway 80 and Allen Street, close to the town’s historic district and makes an ideal event venue for visitors.

“The entire 4.5 acres is on flat ground, which is something you just don’t find around Tombstone,” Devere said. “Everything in this town is hills and valleys.”

Highfield had similar comments.

“There are amazing qualities to that building that make it very appealing for all kinds of purposes,” she said. “The Victorian-style architecture, built in 1922, is beautiful. The gymnasium floor is one-of-a-kind. The property’s location is ideal for all sorts of venues.”

“It’s perplexing to me that investors have not purchased the property. It has tremendous potential, especially in a town like Tombstone with so much history.”


Larrea Meyer, 2, loves going for bicycle rides with her mom Meggen Connolley. Connolley is leading the way to bring more safe cycling options to the area with her Bisbee Bikeways project.