Letting the light shine in at St. Francis of Assisi

By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald

When Stephen Frei, the grandson of the man who founded Emil Frei Art Glass in St. Louis in the late 19th century, begins waxing rhapsodic about the art and science of stained-glass windows, it’s best to remain silent and just look up.

And never ask him, at least publicly, to identify his favorite window.

“That’s like asking which child is your favorite,” Frei said with a laugh as he completed a three-month engagement restoring the 16 stained-glass windows at St. Francis of Assisi Church on State Street. “I think my favorites change over time. Stained-glass windows are quite a science. All good stained-glass windows combine theology, which has to be impeccable, and artistry, because they’ve got to be beautiful and cohesive. You also have to know your science.”

A family affair

Frei’s grandfather’s company installed the windows at St. Francis of Assisi in 1922, and now Frei’s 37-year-old son Aaron runs the company as a fourth-generation artist and theological researcher.

In recent years, St. Francis of Assisi set aside funds from the iGiveCatholic online giving campaign to have the windows refurbished, said Father Michael Schneller, pastor.

The scope of the work was to repair any parts of the windows that were damaged and then to preserve them for future generations. A team from the Frei studios remained in New Orleans for nearly 90 days, re-leading the small pieces of stained glass, and removing rust from the frames and placing a half-inch tempered glass sheet on the exterior to both let in more light and protect the windows from the weather.

“That makes the windows a lot more vibrant, especially during the day,” Father Schneller said.

The windows are so cherished that parishioner David Doll, along with photographer Robin Satterfield, put together a booklet explaining each window’s dedication, narrative and description.

It was an all-in effort. Frei even coaxed Father Schneller one day to come up with him in a 6 ½-story lift to get a bird’s eye view of the windows.

“I am afraid of heights,” Father Schneller said, “but I felt I was in good hands with Stephen and one of his workers.”

Repaired 80-100 pieces

Frei, 64, said workers replaced 80 to 100 individual pieces of glass, about a half-square-foot each, that were badly damaged. The cracked panes were sent to the St. Louis studio, where artists matched the glass elements using “the same mouth-blown, German-leaded crystal” used in the original windows.

The glass reached temperatures of 1200 degrees Fahrenheit, Frei said, but the key to the process is not heating up or cooling down the glass too quickly.

“Glass can be at any temperature, but it cannot absorb fast changes in temperature,” he said. “It’s like taking a hot glass out of the dishwasher and then dropping ice cubes in it. It will crack.”

Father Schneller also is careful not to name his favorite window at St. Francis of Assisi, but in hearing from parishioners, he seems to think the window of St. Francis preaching to the animals has a special pride of place because the saint was so tied to his love for all of God’s creatures.

Father Schneller has a special affinity for the window depicting St. Francis meeting with the Sultan of Egypt in 1219 after attempting to prevent the Crusaders from attacking the Muslims in the Battle of Damietta. Because of his defense of the Muslims, Doll said in his booklet, the Sultan offered him riches, which St. Francis left behind, but the Sultan granted St. Francis “the rights to operate in the Holy Land and treated Christian prisoners of war with kindness.”

“In this day and age of immigration, that’s a beautiful statement of ecumenical dialogue and welcoming people who are different from us,” Father Schneller said.

The toughest challenge of the project actually had nothing to do with the windows, per se.

In the eyes of the mother of a bride, the presence of work-in-progress scaffolding in front of stained-glass windows is about as bad as a misspelled tattoo.

“Stephen was extremely sensitive to them, and if they demanded, we took the scaffolding down,” Father Schneller said.

“Brides are the most dangerous animals on the face of the earth,” Frei said, laughing. “But the mother of the bride is much worse.”

Somehow, St. Francis had a way of working with animals.

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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