Three stained-glass windows that had been covered over for more than a century above the doors of a church in Black Rock got a second chance to shine this week.
But their uncovering also presents a mystery.
“You don’t do that with stained-glass windows,” said Mary Holland, who bought the former St. Francis Xavier Church in 2008 and turned it into the Buffalo Religious Arts Center. “You always have the windows open to the outside world so the light can come through.”
But, she wonders, “Where did they come from? That part is the mystery.”
The church, located at 157 East St., was built in 1913 on the site of another church that had been demolished in 1911. Holland speculates that the windows were salvaged from the earlier church in a last-minute bid to save them.
“The manner in which the windows were removed from the old building and installed in the newer church tells us that it was the work of amateurs,” Holland said. “The rest of the building was completed with skilled craftsmen.”
Glen Albig of Images in Glass concurs.
Albig labored outside the former church one recent morning, joined by his son Colin and a grandson. Working on scaffolding two stories high, the team began removing acrylic glass that had been installed in front of each stained-glass window.
“This type of opalescent glass originated in 1890,” Albig said of the hidden glass. “At the time, it was considered a manufacturing breakthrough. We speculated they came from another church that was maybe torn down on this site. That sometimes happens. They just needed a place to put them.”
During the restoration efforts, Colin Albig discovered concrete behind the windows.
“Not a good way to install a stained-glass window,” he noted.
In addition, the windows were not signed, which was not unusual with this type of window, noted Glen Albig.
“In this era, typically, this type of window generally would not have a signature,” he said. “But they do tell a story, literally.”
The windows’ story – one of redemption, faith and entry to heaven – was told through a series of three Latin inscriptions that until this week had been obscured by acrylic glass that had clouded over time.
“I really wanted to translate the Latin inscriptions,” said Holland, a former librarian. “The artisan who worked on these windows also took poetic license in favor of art. He actually divided words to make them fit the design better.”
With the help of a local Latin expert, Holland translated the three religious verses:
• “This is none other than the House of God and the Gate of Heaven,” from the Book of Genesis.
• “I will go unto the altar of God. God who gives Joy to my youth,” from Psalms 42, and
• “Eternal Peace for Eternity in this House.”
Holland bought the former church for $150,000, along with the three-story, 33,000-square-foot school and rectory – both built in 1895. All three buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places.
Holland transformed the church into a repository for the religious art that she began to obtain after more than 70 churches were closed by the Diocese of Buffalo.
“As churches closed, and as the sales took place, if you didn’t get there, items were gone,” said Holland. “That was the most important.”
Her acquisitions include a carved wood statue of St. Casimir from 1890 that was in the former SS. Peter & Paul Church in Depew. Thirty stained-glass windows from the former Queen of Peace Catholic Church on Genesee Street were also obtained. And colorful vestments worn by priests were the subject of a recent exhibit at the center.
Holland’s religious arts center is itself a work of art. It features single-block marble columns that were transported on the Erie Canal and three Romanesque revival arches that adorn the front entry.
Holland recalls admiring the beauty of the complex before she purchased it.
“We would drive into Kenmore from Hamburg to visit my aunt, and we took all the back streets,” she said. “What struck me was the church towers. They were all illuminated at night so as you came down Amherst (Street) it was the most beautiful ride. It looked like a little storybook village.”