This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Manitoba church fills 100 panes with stained glass

WINNIPEG, Man. — As fire transforms sand into glass, so God’s power transforms people into beautiful reflections.

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River East Mennonite Brethren Church in Winnipeg, Man., transformed its sanctuary’s plain windows into stained-glass portals of worship. — Carson Samson/Mennonite Brethren Church of Manitoba

For a group of 20 from River East Mennonite Brethren Church, this truth became tangible as they spent almost two years turning 100 ordinary sanctuary windows into stained-glass portals of worship.

The spark that ignited this “journey of light” was a bequest from congregation member Heidi Koop, who died of cancer at 63 in 2002. It was 2012 before the seed money — stipulated to fund art in the church — took root under the direction of River East members Rachel Baerg and Danielle Fon­taine Koslowsky. Baerg is head of education at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, and Koslowsky is a professional artist.

The tradition of stained-glass windows in churches harks from a time when few could read, when this “visual Bible” taught people in “a universal and timeless language meant to communicate love through the beauty of God,” explained Baerg April 12 at the dedication service.

The colors and images in cathedral windows “transported the weary masses from mundane realities to the mystery of faith,” she said.

Traditionally, Mennonites preferred “a more simple way,” said Lori Matties, one of the amateur glass artists. Words and deeds expressed Anabaptist faith as the movement blossomed alongside the age of literacy.

“But now, we live in an age of too many words,” she said. “Visual arts can speak into our hearts in ways that words alone do not.”

‘God is light’

To begin, Baerg and Koslowksy holed up in the church basement with 4,000 square feet of paper and a mess of Sunday school crayons. Three hours later, they had filled the pages with the preliminary design for the windows, conveying the mystery of the creation story, the quiet resilience of the cross, the vibrant fruit of transformation and redeeming blood of Christ. Dancing across the top of each panel was the sun of hope with the theme: “God is light.”

River East Mennonite Breth­ren Church turned its plain windows into stained glass. — Carson Samson
River East Mennonite Breth­ren Church turned its plain windows into stained glass. — Carson Samson

The windows were placed in the worship space as they were completed, slowly unveiling the story from creation to resurrection, from variations on blue to multicolored hues.

Even in the creation phase, the windows educated and inspired wonder. Children handled glass and sand during teaching time in the Sunday service and created a tissue-paper stained glass image in Sunday school

The work built relationships in the congregation as they staged a variety of benefit concerts to raise funds. Teams of volunteers, aged 10 to 77, who labored over the shards, connected through the experience of doing the same exacting, physical work together in the workshop space donated by Palliser Furniture. Others came on board to help with installation.

The celebration service was filled with light. The choir performed Elgar’s Lux Aeterna; Sarah Klassen and Irmgard Baerg composed “It’s a Mystery” for the event. At the end of the service, the sun broke through rain clouds, diffusing color through the sanctuary.

Contemplative symbols

The average person is bombarded by 3,000 images a day, Baerg said. Stained-glass windows offer the remedial discipline of contemplation.

To that end, she and Koslow­sky are creating a guide to the symbols — drawn from tradition, inspired by modern art and informed by the congregation’s theologians.

The pieces of broken glass, fused together, “remind us of our brokenness,” Baerg said. “We’re all grains of sand; each has potential to be transformed and to offer glorious beauty to the world beyond.”

Matties said we create beauty in imitation of Jesus.

“We hope our interaction with these windows will open metaphorical windows into and out of our own stories, the stories of those around us and, most of all, into God’s story,” she said.

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