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GLORIES IN GLASS
BUFFALO'S CHURCHES HOLD A RICH COLLECTION OF BEAUTIFUL WINDOWS BY MASTERS OF THE CRAFT

Anyone wishing to see the work of America's two finest stained glass craftsmen can do so quite easily in Buffalo, one of only two places in the world where windows created by Louis Comfort Tiffany and John LaFarge reside in the same space.

Several amazing examples of their work can be viewed at Trinity Episcopal Church on Delaware Avenue. Of particular interest is LaFarge's "The Sealing of the Twelve Tribes" crafted in blue opalescence.

In fact, after the window was complete, LaFarge exhibited it at the 1889 Exposition Universale in Paris where the French government awarded him the Legion of Honor.

"The Louvre actually tried to purchase the window," said Christy May, a producer at WNED-TV Channel 17, the local PBS station.

The story of that LaFarge window is one of many that emerged as May and a camera crew explored a dozen Buffalo churches over the past year. The result of their efforts is the documentary "Buffalo's Houses of Worship" that airs at 8 and 9:30 tonight.

These windows, appreciated by individual congregations and architectural afficionadoes, may not be as well-known to the community at large. After all, it's not as easy to wander into the back door of a church, not knowing when its services are held or when it's open, as it is to walk into the Albright-Knox Art Gallery to view its collection.

But these marvelous masterpieces in glass are part of this city's sacred heritage and the history of the buildings where they are ensconced.

When May started the project about a year ago, she was instantly aware of a lovely dilemma: How could she choose from among the treasury of stunning examples?

Windows created by Tiffany and LaFarge can be found in churches designed by Richard Upjohn, Edward Austin Kent and Buffalo's E.B. Green. They use lavish materials and expansive designs.

Once the TV crew started talking to people about the churches, the challenge they faced was how to tell the story of a dozen churches, each cloaked in history, when they were limited to a few minutes for each. "Each one could be an hourlong special," May said.

But she uncovered some treasures worth noting. For example:

At St. Stanislaus, consideration is given to the way the presence of the church enticed immigrants to stop their journey in Buffalo. The parish became one of the country's largest, May said, with 20,000 members at one time.

Temple Beth Zion is highlighted by Ben Shaun's floor-to-ceiling windows. "I don't know that I'm always a fan of modern architecture," said May, "but I really do love this building."

At First Presbyterian, the work of Buffalo architect E.B. Green is presented with its interior Byzantine style including the gold-leaf domed ceiling and intricate stencil work.

The Unitarian Universalist exemplifies the best in arts and crafts with a skillful blending of wood, stone and stained glass and its magnificent hammered beam ceiling.

At Holy Trinity, organist James Bigham's work showcases the organ, one of the largest in the country.

While the use of expensive and extensive ornamentation would be expected in downtown churches and those in wealthy neighborhoods, May discovered gems in unlikely places.

"Here is this incredible Lombard Romanesque church," she said of Blessed Trinity. "You don't expect it in a little neighborhood with two-story wooden houses. The priest who was here at the time had studied in Europe and dreamed of building a church like those he'd seen in Northern Italy."

Bricks for the exterior were created in the medieval method, handmade and dried in the sun before being wood-fired, which causes an irregular but pleasing pigmentation of their orange-red color, May said.

"Above all, there is this profuse use of terra cotta ornamentation. It's an explosion of decoration everywhere you look -- floor tiles, pillars, arcades with corbels."

Some of the filming was done during Christmas and Easter, when churches are at their most beautiful, and the documentary is accompanied by the original music of Bob Volkman and narrated by Lorna Hill.

May said they intended to limit choices to Buffalo, focusing on those truest to form and designed by the most prestigious architects.

Without hesitation, though, they decided to make an exception for Our Lady of Victory Basilica. "We couldn't see doing this without including that wonderful Baroque interior," she said. "And we only broke the rule by a couple of blocks.

"I've seen a million news pieces on OLV, but it was amazing to take a camera in and find something more and more interesting every direction you point."

They sent up a jib with a 30-foot extension arm to capture views previously unseen, allowing close-ups of the basilica dome. Perhaps uncovering another angel?

May said they wanted to give a nod, at least, to former churches that are now being used for other purposes, such as the former St. Mary of Sorrows (now the King Urban Life Center); St. Vincent de Paul (the Montante Cultural Center) and Plymouth Methodist Church (the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum).

"For our wrap-up, our good night, it's a kind of sad point on how many beautiful places we've lost," she said. "But we look at some that have been preserved in new roles and are still serving the community.

"To me, every church had a little story or a piece of history that made it unique," said May. "It will haunt me that we couldn't include every one, but we could always come back with Houses of Worship II."

Also included in this visual tour are St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral, St. Joseph's Cathedral, St. Louis and St. Gerard.

e-mail: pvoell@buffnews.com

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