Resurrecting History

By Chris Martell - Wisconsin State Journal
Published in "Wisconsin State Journal " newspaper

Madison’s first Episcopalian service was held in 1839 on the grounds of the Capitol.  The dozen or so people who came sat on wooden boards and blocks, and the traveling pastor used an empty flour barrel as his lectern. 

The gathering led to the founding of Grace Church, which by 1855 has a sandstone building on the Square and a congregation that included some of Madison’s wealthiest and most influential families. 

Among them was the Vilas family, whose matriarch, Esther, donated its first stained glass window, imported from a London studio in 1887.  The “Resurrection Window” stood 18 feet high and was 6 feet wide, cost $1,400, and was considered one of Madison’s early art treasures. 

President Grover Cleveland was among its early admirers, having sat in the Vilas pew at Grace Church with his Interior Secretary William Vilas, who was one of Esther’s four surviving sons.  She had dedicated the window to the memory of her husband and five of her children.  Its central panel depicts Mary Magdalene at the tomb of Jesus, asking the angels at his empty tomb where he had gone.  At the top is “cinque-foil,” five found round lobes of glass depicting angels with red wings carrying a crown. 

About two years ago it became obvious that the Vilas window was in urgent need of repair. 

“Leaded glass windows last about a century,” said congregation member Jane Henning.  “So the Vilas window was living on borrowed time.”

Though the church is now better known for its homeless shelter and food pantry than its elite congregation, the congregation felt strongly about saving its oldest stained glass window. 

The restoration cost of $67,000 (its replacement value is $100,000) was raised from donations from individuals, the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation and Grace Church estate sales.  The work was done by Conrad Schmitt Studios, a family-owned New Berlin studio that was established in 1889 and had produced some of the other cathedral glass windows in Grace Church. 

Some of the thousands of glass pieces had cracked or were missing, and the lead that held them together had begun to break down, causing the window to bow.  There was also a crack in the frame, and the Lexan (the plastic shield that prevents damage if someone outside heaves a brick through the window) had turned cloudy.

The window was removed in November and was completely disassembled at the Schmitt Studios, with rubbings made of the glass after the decayed lead was removed.  Pieces of glass were wrapped in copper foil, and new pieces were cut to replace the cracked and missing panels.  Some pieces were glued with colored glue, new pieces of lead channel were installed, and portions of the window were repainted.  It was water-proofed, a new frame built, and a new layer of protective Lexan cut. 

On Feb. 23, the two-week process of putting the 6-by-18-foot high window back in its place is set to begin.  The window will be rededicated at the 10 a.m. service on March 14, officiated by Grace’s former rector Bishop William Wiedrich. 

After that accomplishment is savored, the congregation will have to gear up to repeat the process for another of its treasures, a stained glass window made by famous Louis Comfort Tiffany Studios in New York in 1898 and donated by the Proudfit family.

Resurrecting History (PDF 1.79 Mb)

Tell us about your next Project