RALEIGH — The Catholic Diocese of Raleigh is still months away from breaking ground on its new cathedral off Western Boulevard, but already it has bought the windows.
Forty-two stained-glass windows are being removed from a church in Philadelphia and painstakingly restored so they can be installed in Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral in Raleigh. The 85-year-old windows from Ascension of Our Lord Catholic Church tell the story of Jesus’ life, from the angel’s visit to Mary to the resurrection and ascension, in vivid colored glass held together by lead.
Ascension of Our Lord closed Oct. 1, one of countless once-thriving churches and synagogues in the Midwest and Northeast whose congregations have shrunk as members move to the suburbs or beyond. Their buildings are often filled with ornate windows, statues, carved woodwork and other works of art that sometimes find new homes in the growing churches of the South.
Raleigh Bishop Michael Burbidge knew about the Ascension windows from his days as an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and asked about them when he heard the church was closing. Burbidge grew up in the city, attending a church that itself closed a decade ago, and is familiar with what can get left behind when a parish dies.
“Some of those parish churches – they’re like cathedrals themselves,” Burbidge said. “They’re very beautiful.“
The Ascension windows are large – as tall as 17 feet 8 inches and more than 4 feet wide – and it takes a big church like the planned Raleigh cathedral to hold them. Architect James McCrery of Washington said he made only minor modifications to his design for Holy Name of Jesus, increasing the height and width of the windows by a few inches.
Three panels from one of the windows, standing about 7 feet tall and depicting the Adoration of the Magi, have been restored and are on display in the lobby of the Catholic Center, the diocese headquarters on the site where the cathedral will stand.
The diocese paid $320,000 for the windows, and is spending an additional $1 million to have them restored. It hopes to sell naming rights to cover those costs, Burbidge said.
To commission new windows of this quality and size and beauty would be cost prohibitive, McCrery said.
“You always have your eye out for beautiful art that’s available,” he said. “But for us being able to find windows that were big enough, great enough in number, and available, the likelihood is essentially nil. So when this came to us, we embraced it immediately.”
Ascension of Our Lord Catholic Church was built in 1914 in the largely Irish, blue-collar Harrowgate neighborhood in North Philadelphia. The granite building has a row of columns over the front door, a red-tile roof and a domed bell tower that can be seen for blocks over the two-story row houses that line the narrow streets.
The neighborhood teemed with workers in nearby textile plants and later the complex where they made Philco radios and TVs down the street. Enrollment in Ascension’s parish school peaked in 1963 at about 1,800 students, and the number of registered parishioners topped out at 13,500 in 1974, according to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
But as Catholics left the city, Ascension, along with other Philadelphia churches, declined.
Enrollment in the school was under 200 when it closed two years ago, and only 188 people attended weekend mass on average last year, according to the archdiocese. The church’s imposing sanctuary had deteriorated so much that it wasn’t safe to hold services there anymore, and those who did show up gathered in the rectory or the former school building.
The contraction of the Philadelphia archdiocese is an ongoing process, spokesman Kenneth Gavin said. There are now 256 Catholic parishes in Philadelphia and four surrounding counties, down from 302 in 1990, and more closures are expected to be announced in the spring.
By contrast, the 54-county Catholic Diocese of Raleigh is growing; Burbidge says he has dedicated eight new churches in recent years, with two more on the horizon.
There are now nearly half a million Catholics in the eastern half of North Carolina, spread over 96 parishes and missions. A century ago, more Catholics belonged to a single parish like Ascension in Philadelphia than lived in the entire state of North Carolina.
Ascension’s stained-glass windows were installed in 1928, the work of Paula Himmelsbach Balano, who ran her own stained-glass studio in Philadelphia and did windows for numerous churches in the region. This was perhaps her most expensive and elaborate commission, McCrery said.
Workers, wearing disposable suits, gloves and respirators to protect them from the lead, began chiseling the windows out of the building two months ago and won’t be finished for a few weeks, said Joe Beyer, head of Beyer Studio, the Philadelphia company doing the restoration.
Beyer said that after 85 years, the Ascension windows are in pretty rough shape. They suffer from “metal fatigue,” brought on in part because the colored glass and lead capture the sun’s heat and buckle over time – “the common cold for stained glass,” Beyer says.
Beyer Studio is taking each window apart, piece by piece, and replacing the lead. It’s a meticulous process; one 17-1/2-foot window will take 500 man-hours to restore, Beyer said.
“We could have tried to patch it up and put Band-Aids all over the place, but the cathedral would have been saddled with a big restoration project somewhere down the road,” Beyer said. “It makes sense to do it now while we have the windows out.”
Burbidge is excited about the opportunity to preserve the beauty of the Ascension windows, and says he hopes “as much as possible” to incorporate other artifacts from shuttered churches in the new cathedral.
“I think it shows the rich tradition and the history that is ours as a church,” Burbidge said. “It honors those who have gone before us. We’re recipients of their faith, their work, their sacrifice, and it just touches the heart a little more deeply.”