'Stained Glass Window Tour' gives tourists art and religion in one package
It's a little hard to imagine stained-glass art still having a place in American churches, with modern renovations such as movie theater set-ups, overhead projectors contemporary band music taking over the worship scene. But on Sunday, a tour sponsored by the Landmark Society of Genesee County took Batavia residents to five local churches where stained glass windows still have an important place.
The "Stained Glass Window Tour" was created in 1990. According to Landmark Society President Laurie Oltremari, this is the first time the tour has been revived in almost 20 years. This time around, it was done in order to raise money for the restoration efforts of St. James Episcopal Church.
"We thought it would be good exposure for the churches and their artwork," Oltremari said. "We hope we can make it an annual event."
The tour started at 1 p.m. and ended at 4 p.m., and tourists could visit the churches in any order they wanted. The five churches spanned several denominations, and the quantity and style of stained-glass art in each location reflected that.
The different sites were as follows:
St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church, 20 Ellicott St.
Designed by Leo P. Frohe in the early 1900s, the stained-glass windows at St. Mary's demonstrate the Catholic tradition of making sacred art an integral part of worship. As a sacramental religion, Catholicism often uses art and architecture to help remind believers that they are surrounded by heavenly realities and by the Communion of Saints.
All of the windows that run along the east and west sides of the church depict events in the life of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, after whom the parish is named. Catholics believe that Mary's life is about and centers around the life of Christ; accordingly, the majority of the windows illustrate key moments of His life and ministry such as the crucifixion and resurrection (right above the front entrance and to the right of the altar, respectively). Basically, people who go into St. Mary's can see the Gospel narrative unfold in the form of visual art.
The church also includes a window dedicated to Saint Peter -- to whom Jesus gave the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, according to Catholic tradition -- with the emblem of crossed keys, as well as a window dedicated to Saint Paul with the emblem of a sword (symbolic of truth and its victorious power). These windows are paired together and located at the left of the altar.
Oltremari led the tour of St. Mary's Church; she pointed out that it is "the oldest Catholic Church in Batavia."
St. James Episcopal Church, 405 East Main St.
Stepping into this church is a lot like stepping back in time to another era!
Batavia native Robert North built St. James Episcopal Church in 1908 after living in England for a year to study English Gothic architecture. As is common in the Gothic style, the inside of the church is shaped like the inverted hull of a ship and features a plethora of Anglican-styled windows.
Because it is close to the Catholic tradition, the Episcopalian denomination places a similar importance on artistic depictions of Christ, the saints and Christian symbols.
"It helps to remind people of why they are in church in the first place," commented Jeanette, the St. James tour guide.
Right when you walk into the church, a huge window right above the altar will catch your eye. It depicts Christ on the cross with angels above him and his closest followers below him, mourning his suffering and death.
The windows along the sides of the church feature the symbols of various saints from the Judeo-Christian tradition, ranging from the Old Testament prophets to Saint Margaret, Queen of Scotland.
The church's Chapel, which branches off from the altar and features even older church architecture, has two windows devoted to the Virgin Mary and her Child and one to the church's namesake, St. James. The latter window is called the "Pilgrim Window," and shows the saint carrying a bag labeled with a scallop, the sign of pilgrims (Saint James is believed to have travelled all the way from Israel to Spain to spread the Gospel).
There are also many stained-glass windows in the upper part of the church, in addition to a window dedicated to the "Four Evangelists" (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) right above the front entrance. This particular window is built into the tower and is what people see when driving past the church.
St. Paul Lutheran Church, 31 Washington Ave.
The windows at St. Paul's were made by Henry Keck, a Rochester-based glassmaker, in the 1950s. They are based on the Lutheran theological tradition, which keeps the sacramental and liturgical forms of Catholicism while at the same time eliminating other aspects of it -- the intercession of the saints, for example -- in order to try to portray a more one-on-one relationship between the believer and Jesus.
The windows on the east side of the church are illustrations of the various names of Jesus. Examples include:
• Jesus the Good Shepherd
• "I am the Door" (to eternal life)
• Christ the Friend of Children
• Christ the King
On the west side of the church are stained-glass windows with images that narrate the life of Christ from His nativity to His ascension into heaven.
The large rose window over the altar shows Jesus in the center, with a young family on the left and an elderly couple with an ailing son on the right. The purpose of this is to announce Jesus as the Great Healer toward whom all people should come.
Directly across from this, in the church loft, is the St. Paul Window -- dedicated to the church's namesake -- which has an open Bible with a sword over it. Symbols of the theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity are also included in the window.
Other window images in St. Paul's include depictions of the Bible, the Ten Commandments, the Martin Luther Rose (symbolizing the four tenets of the Lutheran Church) and the symbols of the four evangelists and the 12 apostles.
One of the tourists who is also a member of St. Paul's said that the stained-glass art is important because "we [Lutherans] need history and tradition, and to be reminded of our roots even as we make certain changes with the times."
First Baptist Church, 306 East Main St.
The windows of First Baptist Church were designed by Pierce and Dockstader, an Elmira-based architectural firm, in the late Nineteenth Century. There are only two of them, and their content is less obviously religious than the previous churches' windows. Baptists emphasize the believer's interior connection with Christ, so the artwork of the windows is meant simply to help inspire an attitude of worship.
"It [the stained glass] presents an environment that calms our hearts and minds and gets us ready for prayer," said Wendy, one of the tour guides.
Carol Wade, a second tour guide and a deacon at the church, said that sometimes, when she finds her mind wandering during a sermon, the windows help her to refocus her attention.
"There's something about the blend of colors and the sun shining through them that just makes you feel this warmth," she said.
First Presbyterian Church, 300 East Main St.
First Presbyterian is one of the oldest churches in Batavia, and no one really knows who made its stained-glass windows.
There is an artificially lit rose window above the altar that was added to the church in 1954 by Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence Schultz. This is the most elaborate illustration in the church, featuring a dove -- which is the symbol of the Holy Spirit and a common feature of all the churches involved in this tour -- along with the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ, a cup symbolizing the Last Supper, the Bible, the Ten Commandments, and seven candlesticks that represent God's Church and other Biblical symbols.
The other stained-glass windows have heraldic designs and flowers, but nothing too elaborate. Because it has roots in the tradition of the Calvinist reformers, the imagery and symbolism in traditional Presbyterian art and architecture is pretty minimal.
Please contact the Landmark Society of Genesee County by mail -- P.O. Box 342, Batavia, NY 14020 -- for more information on the history of these churches and their architectural features.
Photos by Howard Owens