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Southminster church windows being restored

Pittsburgh Post GazetteBy Erin Gibson Allen
Pittsburgh Post Gazette
Thursday, September 27, 2007

Enter Southminster Presbyterian Church, in Mt. Lebanon, and you’ll see two stained glass windows on either side of the main door that welcome visitors “… into the house of the Lord.”

In the spacious sanctuary you will see a large stained glass window, known as the Chancel Window, depicting images of Jesus Christ.

Sit down to pray and you’ll notice more large windows to the left and right in the transepts, referred to as the Parable Window and the Miracle Window. These contain Biblical images rendered predominantly in cobalt blue. Smaller windows line the outer edges of the pews.

On your way out, you’ll see the Great Commission Window, which, among depictions of the disciples, tells the visitor to “… make disciples of all nations, and lo I am with you always.”

These coordinated images done in stained glass were the vision of Dr. Calvin Reid, the fourth pastor of the church. The church was built in 1928 and the windows started going in after WWII, but were not finished until 1963.

Now those windows are getting a meticulous face lift.

Various church families and groups funded the initial cost of the windows, designed by Pittsburgh Stained Glass Studios, D’Ascenzo Studios, and Willet Studios.

An evaluation in 2005 revealed that the windows now suffer from planar deflection, which means that the lead material between the glass pieces has weakened over time, causing the windows to curve and bulge.

The Miracle Window, facing south, was in the worst condition and is being completely refurbished in the first phase of repair.

“The real miracle is that the window didn’t crash onto Castle Shannon Boulevard,” said Carla Campbell, a church trustee working on the window project.

The Miracle Window is the largest part of the renovation effort, costing about $80,000. Small “vent” windows, which open to the outside, are also being repaired, costing about $1,500 each.

Juxtaposed to the sanctuary is a chapel, with more stained glass windows, several of which are also being repaired.

Stained Glass Resources in the West End is repairing the windows under the supervision of Kirk Weaver, a vice president of the company and Southminster member.

Mr. Weaver, who has been working with stained glass his entire life — his father and grandfather were in the business — explains that techniques used today are much the same as they have always been. Work is still done by hand by craftsmen using the same tools and techniques that the original artist would have used.

Restoring stained glass windows is tedious and time consuming. Mr. Weaver estimates that this project will take about 2,000 manhours.

The most difficult part of the job is removing the windows. “You don’t really know how strong the panels are until you get them down,” he said. Workers must be precise and careful so as not to damage any of pieces as they are removed.

After the window is disassembled, one section at a time, a full-sized rubbing of the window is made, using brown paper layered with carbon paper. This allows the craftsmen to reassemble the window, exactly as it was, using new lead, and after cleaning each hand-blown piece of glass.

Working on church windows adds pressure to the job, Mr. Weaver said. “The church has served as a good steward of these works of art, and now it is my turn. It is an awesome responsibility.”

The Great Commission Window contains small images of local interest worth searching for. Hidden in this window is a Bessemer furnace, used to produce carbon steel in the area’s historic steel days.

The church hopes to have the windows back, good as new, in time for Christmas. After being refurbished, the Miracle Window “should outlast any of the members,” Mr. Weaver said.

A majority of the funding for the window repair will be covered by member donations. In June, the church received designation as a historic landmark with the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation. The Foundation provided the church with a $5,000 matching grant to help fund the window restoration.

The church envisions repairing the remaining windows in two additional phases as their condition deteriorates and as funds allow.

Southminster is an active church, with approximately 1,500 members and numerous outreach programs. The church offers a preschool, daycare, and operates the South Hills Food Pantry. As a member of the Interfaith Hospitality Network, Southminster provides meals and overnight accommodations to homeless families one week at a time, on a rotating basis. Many local groups use the church for meeting space.

A visitor in the sanctuary also may notice woodcarvings recalling the disciplines of daily life (labor and education, for example) lining the chancel. These carvings were done in 1989 by sculptor Hugh Watkins, a church member and Mt. Lebanon native.

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the church, however, is better heard than seen. Inside the sandstone tower atop the church are eight bells. Six of these bells came from a church in Preston, England, whose tower became too weak to hold the heavy bells, which range in weight from 500 to 1,000 pounds. A foundation in England works to find churches that can use abandoned bells. Four of the bells were built in 1814, two others in 1934, and two in 2000. The bells were dedicated at Southminster in October of 2002.

It takes 8 people, pulling on ropes, to ring the bells, explained Richard Pinkerton, the minister of music. Mr. Pinkerton believes that church’s tower is one of only 45 in North America to have active full-circle ringing bells like these. Most church bells are either not active or are run mechanically, he said.

The tower is known as the “Peace Tower” because the word peace is engraved in two different languages (for a total of 16 languages) on opposite sides of each bell.

Both the windows and the bells serve as evidence that sometimes doing things by hand, in the same tradition as they have been for hundreds of years, creates the most inspiring results.

The bells can be heard on Thursday evenings, Sunday mornings, and special occasions.

For more, call the church, at 412-343-8900.

First published on September 27, 2007 at 6:45 am
Erin Gibson Allen is a freelance writer.

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