By Katie Dahlstrom
Ornate designs and biblical depictions dye the evening sunlight creeping into St. Irenaeus Cultural Center violet, orange, gold and green.
Where before a ray of light pierced a translucent piece of acrylic glass, now rests the body of Jesus Christ, filtering the light before it enters the nearly 150-year-old building.
The stained and painted glass windows that towered over the pews at St. Irenaeus since the 1860s have been restored and reinstalled, bringing a piece of the former church’s history home.
“What was broken now is fixed,” Clinton County Historical Society Treasurer Jan Hansen said.
Three stained and painted glass windows once again hang over the choir loft in the former church at 2811 N. Second St. In the center window — the largest of the three — Jesus Christ hangs crucified against a sky of bold blue and desert sand shaded buildings. Two unknown saints, cloaked in ruby red and glowing green, pray on the two smaller windows to the left and right.
“It feels incredible. You know it’s kind of overwhelming when you look at the windows. They’re so vibrant, the blues, the reds, the greens,” Hansen said.
The windows left St. Irenaeus last July because of years of deterioration that left a dangerous and unsightly situation. Some lead support beams had buckled, causing glass to fall. Other pieces that remained part of the window were also damaged, meaning technicians with Glass Heritage had to remove some sections of the 20-feet-tall windows piece by piece.
They were then shipped to Glass Heritage’s studio in Davenport where they underwent a museum-quality restoration using techniques from the era the church was constructed, but with new materials.
In the studio, technicians made a rubbing of the windows. Once they had the windows’ patterns on a piece of paper, techs disassembled and put the pieces into a water tank for cleaning. They carefully cleaned the vivid and thin pieces of glass so as not to remove any of the color.
Once clean, technicians fashioned the pieces in their respective spots over the rubbing like a technicolor glass puzzle so they could be re-leaded and waterproofed.
Restoring the windows required a wealth of repair work and hours of tediously reassembling the scenes.
Pieces from previous fixes were left in because they are part of the windows’ history — a history that also includes a trip from France to New Orleans where the windows allegedly were shipped up the Mississippi River to Clinton.
“These are probably the oldest windows I will ever touch,” Glass Heritage co-owner Adrian English said.
Some new pieces were created and copper foil was used to reunite smaller pieces that had broken.
When then windows were restored, they were sent back to Clinton for a six-day installation.
The Clinton County Historical Society raised more than $16,000 to have the windows restored, causing some sleepless nights throughout the year-long process.
“I was worried. I thought we might have to take out a loan to get the windows put back in,” Hansen said. “If you don’t have any faith or trust in God this changes your mind.”
The group never considered replacing the windows. If they had, the substitute would have been sub-par compared to the intense colors produced in the 1860s. The red panes, for instance, contain 24-karat gold.
“They could have found another red, but it wouldn’t have been as rich or dark as these,” English said. “To recreate these windows would have cost a lot more as well.”
The Historical Society has taken care of the former church since it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2010. Since the windows are complete and repairs to the rose window at the opposite end of the church is already paid for, the group now aims to garner funds to re-wire the building.
Hansen said the care shouldn’t be mistaken for control. The group doesn’t want to monopolize the space. Instead, it hopes the community will continue to use the building.
“The Historical Society wants it to be the community’s. This is their history. We’re honored to take care of it, but it’s their blood, their sweat, their tears, that have made this place what it is,” she said.
Those who use St. Irenaeus into the next century will do so beneath the spirited windows. With regular care, they will last for 100 years or more.