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.”