Walking into St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 413 S. Second St., one can feel the gravity of the religious monument. The most striking features of the church are its stained-glass windows. Each of the 38 windows depict its own saint, religious figure or significant moment in Christianity, each beautifully detailed, allowing the sunlight to spill in from many directions.
“I think the windows add to the spirituality of this place,” said the Rev. Elizabeth Tester. “I feel everyone who worships here feel it’s a holy place.”
It was not long ago that these masterfully crafted pieces were once in grave danger, as the windows were showing the effects of outdated protective measures. Some suffered more than others, flexing during storms and two were even bulging.
Today, these priceless artworks are now safely protected and fixed following the placement of new aluminum frames and acrylic weather panels by Associated Crafts-Willet Hauser on the outside of the church and caulking shut the old ventilation windows, which will allow the pieces to last longer and be more energy efficient. On top of these fixes, the two-person crew spent two weeks in October to complete removing the old Plexiglas, tempered glass and shower-glass exterior windows, scraping existing window frames, filling cracks and caulking, cleaning the original glass and placing small vents to the new coverings to reduce condensation in the windows and to to avert insect damage, according to fourth generation member and church historian Matt Brody. Final inspection was approved on Oct. 24.
The history of the windows is almost as old as that of the church itself. The church was once a wooden building in 1845 and the building where it now sits was built in 1860, making it the oldest church building in Dodge and Jefferson Counties; St. Paul’s has been a religious staple in Watertown for more than a century. Original church windows were replaced by the current memorial windows when they were placed and dedicated in the church in 1909. Each of the 38 windows memorialize people who were significant to both Watertown and especially important in the church.
Brody explained that the church was worried about the welfare of the windows because stained glass windows are difficult to insure. Preserving the windows was of critical importance to St. Paul’s, according to Brody.
“We realized we needed to do something for years and we wanted to for years,” Brody said. “It was mostly a preservation project. It wasn’t earth-shattering, but for an old historic church, it’s a significant step to keep it maintained.”
For many years, it seemed the goal of preserving the windows was out of reach, as an estimate from Willet-Hauser a few years ago came in at $64,000, according to Tester. However, a more recent quote of $34,000 gave the church a chance to achieve its goal.
The church was unsure if community fundraising could generate enough revenue and so they asked to redirect some money in memorial funds received from a couple of church members to complete the project if it couldn’t get enough funding. After beginning a fundraising campaign in January, the church was “astounded” after receiving more money than it had initially anticipated, with more than half of the estimated cost coming from fundraising. In total, $18,000 was raised in general gifts from individuals and families in the church and $20,000 came from the memorial funds.
“Churches all over are facing similar issues we’re facing and it is a blessing we were able to make it happen,” Tester said. “Restoring would be a challenge for even large churches so being able to preserve all 38 of ours at one time is remarkable.”
Now with the windows protected, the next generation of churchgoers may enjoy the beauty of the windows. In fact, the staff members of Willet-Hauser were so impressed by the craftsmanship of the windows, they couldn’t help but take photos of the glass to send to restorers, according to Tester. That is the true power of the windows and with their safety ensured, the joy the spread may continue.
“Because the parish is so small, if anything happened to the windows or the organ, it could really hurt us financially. The blessing, to be able to get one of those preserved for future generations of the St. Paul’s community to not have to worry about it, is huge,” Tester said. “As someone who is guiding a community of worship when you’re going through a preservation project like this, it is a big deal. It is an honor to be able to continue to preserve these families memories.”
“St. Paul’s Episcopal Church had concerned itself for years with this goal of quality maintenance and it is now an accomplished reality,” Brody said.
Tester recently wrote a column for the Nov. 15 issue of the Daily Times titled “The impossible can be possible through God,” where she described the completion of the project and how it all came together. In the piece, she gave thanks to her church community, all those who helped complete the project and to God. In the piece she said, “At one time, preserving our stained-glass windows seemed impossible. And yet, time and again, what once seemed impossible has come to pass.”
It was never an easy journey for the members of the church who gave so much to preserve some of its most significant pieces and it was never an easy journey for the windows, which went through so much over the century they have been staples of the church building. But these struggles are now in the past and future community members may now revel in the beauty the windows project, through the beaming multi-colored lights painting the white interior walls of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and creating a religious experience for all who enter.