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Church members chip in to create stained glass project

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A group of parishioners at a Mandan church is applying newly acquired skills for an ancient art form to create a set of eight stained glass windows that will adorn the sanctuary for years to come.

It’s a labor of love that started about a year ago after a modern problem -- lack of funding -- halted the Messiah Lutheran Church congregation’s idea of hiring a company to update the existing sanctuary windows with a stained glass project. The $60,000 bid for the project was “way more money than what was available,” the Rev. Kevin Zellers said.

He offered up a solution. He’d share his knowledge of stained glass -- learned a few years ago by going to classes “like some people go to bowling once a week,” he said -- with anyone interested. Once they had some basic skills, they could make their own stained glass windows.

Creating stained glass works “is more a trade than a craft,” Zellers said. “You have to learn the process and the steps, because it’s not a little thing."

Each of the 15 or so participants produced a 16-inch by 24-inch practice panel to build their skills on each aspect of stained glass before work on the church project began. None has a specific job now.

“I don’t dictate who cuts, who grinds, who solders,” Zellers said. “They all just do what they’re interested in.”

Each 2-foot by 4-foot window for the sanctuary has the same basic design, which includes a circular centerpiece called a medallion. The medallions will be painted, not stained, and each will depict a scene from the life of Christ. When completed, likely in another year, the windows will be placed into the sound baffles on the sides of the sanctuary. Some new age technology -- LED lights -- will illuminate the windows from behind.

The project draws together a cross-section of the congregation. Participants range in age from 20 to 83. They work for a few hours each Sunday, taking a day off only if the community room of the church is booked for another function.

“A year and a half ago, if you said we’d be in the stained glass business, I’d say you’re crazy,” said Richard Ames, the oldest member of the group.

A room just off the church’s gathering place serves as a work space, complete with a bench for cutting glass, grinders behind a transparent shield that provides eye protection, and an array of hand tools. The windows are being built two at a time, with a team working on each window. Each is going a little faster than the previous, said Kristi Dilger, a lifetime member of the church. She thought the process would be as simple as putting the pieces together and hanging them up, but she’s learned there are many more steps than she anticipated.

“They’re not mass-produced,” she said.

The roots of stained glass are tied to architectural developments of the 1200s and 1300s in western Europe, said Nicole Derenne, an instructor at the University of North Dakota's Department of Art and Design. Builders began using arches and buttresses to support the weight of buildings, which allowed for thinner walls that did not have to support as much weight. That in turn allowed for the use of glass in the walls.

"Their purpose was to transform the interior of the building into a heavenly place," Derenne said. "Outside was the regular world, inside was the emulation of the heavenly city of God."

Stained glass was a storytelling and communication medium in a time period when many people were illiterate, Derenne said. Churches at the time were in the heart of communities and were gathering places as well as places of worship, so the stories in the glass were meant to reach many people and be educational, she said.

Some of the workers at Messiah Lutheran cut the glass into shapes, while others trim it to exactly fit the design mapped out for each panel. Once the pieces fit, they are soldered into place with lead came -- pliable H-shaped strings of lead into which the glass fits -- between the pieces. Putty will be added around each piece of glass to make the panel more firm. One of the final touches is the application of patina, a coating that keeps the glass from oxidizing and turning black.

Dilger, who was baptized at the church’s former location in downtown Mandan 42 years ago, said she’s worked on smaller projects before “but not something that’s going to take years.”

“It will be exciting to see them lit up in the sanctuary,” she said.

Like Dilger, Anthony Steele, 20, has been part of the project since it started. His participation “just kind of happened,” he said, and he’s enjoyed working with a group to complete a project that will last for generations.

“It will be kind of surreal to come back and say, 'Here’s that window or that part I tried to fix,'” Steele said.

Church members with finishing and framing carpentry skills will install the windows once the glass work is done. It’s been rewarding “to know the project will far outlive us,” said Renae Hoggarth, 66, a congregation member since 1984.

“It will make the sanctuary a reverent place,” she said.

A dedication service will mark the completion of the project. The group hasn’t set a strict deadline, Ames said, adding “everybody is more interested in doing it right.”

Reach Travis Svihovec at 701-250-8260 or


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