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story.lead_photo.caption John, Peter and Paul gaze toward heaven in a depiction of the Christian church’s beginning as it was described in the Book of Acts, in a stained glass window at Little Rock’s Christ Episcopal Church. The window is one of 30 that was removed from the church and restored in Germany in a three-year, $1 million restoration project more than 70 years after the windows were originally installed in the church building. - Photo by Staton Breidenthal

Not long after J.B. Cross and his family joined Little Rock's Christ Episcopal Church in 1992, he found himself studying the neo-Gothic church building's stained glass windows.

The depictions of biblical figures and scenes in the windows offered the possibility of becoming part of an interesting topic for the adult Sunday School class he was teaching, said Cross, a construction law attorney.

"I just started looking more and more at the symbolism of [the windows], and it grew into an obsession," Cross said of his interest in the church's windows. "There's a whole theological education in the glass if you just look at it."

Cross will share some of what he has learned with others on Sunday during a guided tour of the church's newly restored windows -- a project that took three years and nearly a million dollars to complete -- in conjunction with the church's service that combines celebrating the finished restoration and the Epiphany, or Three Kings' Day, which celebrates the incarnation of God in Christ.

Christ Episcopal held the denomination's first worship service in Arkansas in 1839 in a borrowed Presbyterian sanctuary on what was then the corner of Main and Second streets in Little Rock, according to the book Stories in Light: The Windows of Christ Episcopal Church.

The church survived two fires -- the most recent of which occurred in 1938, shortly after completion of renovations on the building -- and the church's stained glass windows were installed during construction of the its most recent building, which was completed under the direction of the Rev. William Witsell, Christ Episcopal's rector at the time, in 1941.

"His fingerprints are all over these things," Cross said of Witsell's designs.

What makes the windows so unique, he said, is that the windows are all related to one another and have been created by the same manufacturer. The windows tell the story of Christ from the time of prophecy in "The Messiah Foretold" in the clerestory, or upper tier of windows, to his birth, baptism, temptation in the wilderness -- what the Rev. Kate Alexander, rector of Christ Episcopal Church, called "key moments in the Gospel stories" -- to that first Episcopal service.

By the time Cross began examining the windows in search of inspiration in the 1990s, the glass was beginning to buckle.

"I noticed that there were parts that were bowed out," he said. "It's sort of like the glass was calling to us, because it really needed work."

Ellen Gray, a retired executive vice president of Stephens Inc. who was on the restoration committee, said Christ Church is where she became an Episcopalian 50 years ago.

"[The church] has been very comforting to me, and the stained glass windows were a big part of that," Gray said.

Around the time that talk of restoring the windows began, Gray lost her sister, Carolyn Gray LeMaster, a well-known historian of Judaism in Arkansas.

"I was just almost not able to function," Gray said of the time after LeMaster's death in 2013.

It became a driving force, she said, in approaching the Rev. Scott Walters, rector of Christ Church at the time, for a discussion that resulted in her decision to help pay for repairing the windows.

"The light just came on, that it was the right thing to do," Gray said.

Alexander said that after Gray's "generous lead gift," in a few weeks the money for the project was raised. Some of the donors, Alexander noted, are direct descendants of the families who contributed money for the original windows.

"I think people understand that these windows are a treasure, that there is a duty and a sense of responsibility," Alexander said.

Franz Meyer Studios, which first created the windows with Witsell's designs in the early 1940s, ended up with the lowest bid when it came time to find a company to restore the windows. The company still had the original 1940s cartoons -- the drawing templates used for the church's stained-glass designs.

The original windows were commissioned from the Franz Meyer location in New York -- windows could not have been safely transported from Germany during World War II, Alexander noted -- but that outpost was long since consolidated back into Munich, and restoration of the windows required removal and overseas transport of each window. Soos Stained Glass of Little Rock installed clear window panes during the restoration project, which included taking apart each window and re-leading each pane with material that would better withstand extreme temperatures; and covering each panel with a pane of clear glass that will extend the life of the restored glass.

"Christ Church reflects a lot on what it means to be a downtown church -- outward looking," Alexander said. "When these windows were out, you could see the street, so we'd be sitting in here for worship and all the hustle and bustle of downtown was just right there, and ... I think that was kind of cool and energizing to the congregation."

Alexander will speak briefly for the Epiphany occasion and said she sees a connection between the restoration of the windows and the coming into the light that is re-emphasized at the Epiphany, which occurs on the 12th day after Christmas.

Church member Dick Picard had replaced a few pieces of glass that had fallen out and left holes in the church's only layer of window separating it from the outdoors before the restoration. He and his wife, Gwynneth, have attended the church's 8 a.m. service for about a dozen years.

"Now when the sun comes up, it's just absolutely glorious," Picard said.

Picard said he's most drawn to the east window, which the congregation faces during Christ Episcopal's worship services.

"The other windows are historical in nature, especially the lower [windows], where you can read easily about the history of the Episcopal church in America, and those are all kind of interesting just to read as you go by," Picard said. "But the one in the front is the one that just draws your eye."

Cross said Wednesday that he was still trying to figure out how to explain the windows to those joining the tour at 3 p.m. Sunday, before the Choral Evensong and official rededication, of which the Rt. Rev. Larry Benfield, Episcopal Bishop of Arkansas, will be a part.

Cross noted that Witsell wrote a book on the history of Christ Episcopal Church.

"While [Witsell] was a great leader and a noted church builder, his version of writing was hard," Cross joked. "But the ideas and the themes are his, and I think people need to appreciate how he left us the story of the light, all in stained glass, all in one place."

Photo by Staton Breidenthal
God is the center figure of the trinity in “Adoration by Heaven and Earth,” the central window of Christ Episcopal Church in Little Rock.

Religion on 01/05/2019

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