The Windows of St. Mary's Basilica

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Description

The latest restoration for St. Mary's Basilica in downtown Phoenix includes one of the most valued elements of the church's architecture - the stained-glass windows. St. Mary's is bringing new life to the biblical story tellers.

Transcript

Narrator:
There is a mystery to the glittering art of stained glass. A basic substance -- sand – is transformed by fire, colored with metallic salts and oxides, and set in patterns to glow from within. Stained-glass windows are thought to have evolved from ancient cloisonné, mosaic and jewelry making. Their historic home has been the church.


Jeffrey Campbell:
They wanted them to be theologically correct, but they were also meant to tell a story because there were a lot of people in the early 1900s who didn't read, obviously. So you could look at those windows and you could kind of, you know, tell a whole story by looking at them. For centuries – obviously we're talking about Europe -- the stories that they saw in glass were the stories that nurtured people's imaginations and their religious zeal and stuff, and their heroes were Santa Ana or San Joaquin or god knows, and they would see stuff in the glass.

Narrator:
Perhaps the finest stained-glass windows in Arizona are those of the nearly century-old St. Mary's Basilica in downtown Phoenix . They still tell stories to people every day, like this one of Jesus in the temple.

Fr. Alonso DeBlas:
They see him being respectfully heard by these elders. I mean, that's completely – he should be respectfully listening, and yet they are so wowed by the kid.

Narrator:
St. Mary's is the mother of Catholic parishes in the Valley, founded in 1881, and since 1914 staffed by Franciscan friars, or as Father Alonso calls them, the "boys in brown." In the early 1900s, the windows at St. Mary's were crafted in St. Louis and brought were by their maker, M.L. Frye.

Fr. Alonso DeBlas:
We tracked down the actual shop that turned them out and went to them. I think the grandson was still there. And so, yeah, they say that he brought them out. He assembled them in St. Louis and came out on the train --Chuga chuga chuga chuga chuga -- with these things in wooden crates, himself holding on to everything.

Narrator:
Each piece of stained glass is hand-painted and fired in a 1200-degree kiln several times until the paint becomes part of the glass. Set in wooden frames, the glass and lead have withstood the Phoenix heat for more than 90 years. However, time and the renovation of the new civic plaza across the street caused concern.

Jeffrey Campbell:
The foundations, it's all un-reinforced masonry, so there are no steel re-bars in our foundations of any kind. So subsequently, the building is more susceptible to vibration and any damage that might occur because of the construction next door.

Narrator:
Art-glass experts were called in to inspect the windows.

John Phillips:
These windows here in particular are one of the better sets I'd ever seen -- seen them do. They're extraordinary windows. We found multiple bulging in the window where the window actually bows in and out. There were some cracked pieces, some broken-out pieces. The frames are in need of – of conditioning. They've cracked and dried out and repainted. We had some previous repairs that were done that were coming undone that we had to redo.

Narrator:
John Phillips and his craftsmen began the tricky procedure of removing the windows, then set up shop onsite at St. Mary's.

John Phillips:
Usually about every 100, 125 years you need to completely re-lead them, take them apart piece by piece and replace all the lead. The windows at St. Mary's were generally in good condition. The art of having stained-glass windows is you have to maintain them. They're not -- they're not where you put them in and just left complete and go. You have to keep continually doing maintenance on them. Fortunately this building and this diocese is real good about doing that with their windows.

Fr. Alonso DeBlas:
There was quite a sacrifice in our obtaining them and revering them and, of course, part of the thing is, yes, people have that need for continuity. They even say, well, my grandparents -- in fact, some of their names of their grandparents are up here, you know, for them to see and show their kids. I think they see the building as a very important part of Phoenix as it is today, but I think they also see it as an important part of the future ongoing. And it is. It's a jewel in the heart of downtown Phoenix.

Narrator:
The stained-glass windows of St. Mary's basilica shine once again, restored to their original glory for today's parishioners and for future generations.

Narrator:
On the next Arizona Stories, the fight for civil rights, a ship named Arizona and the men who sailed her, the Hispanic flyboys of World War II, and a mission to preserve Apache culture.