PHOTOS BY STEVE SMITH, VISIONFIRE STUDIOS
A force of nature destroyed the 155-year-old stained glass window in a Pictou church in 2019. The fragments that survived are now pieces of history looking for a new home.
An 1880s-era debate over music in the Presbyterian church and a devastating hurricane 130 years later are leading to a new chapter for hundreds of pieces of stained glass.
The force of September 2019’s Hurricane Dorian blew out most of the 10-foot-tall stained-glass window high above the front doors at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Pictou, scattering shards all over the three-way intersection at Coleraine Street, Church Street and Beeches Road.
“I arrived at dawn and started sweeping up glass,” says Murray Hill, clerk of session with the church. “The wind pulled out the stained glass and dropped a third of it onto the street. A third was hanging and another third was left intact in the window. We salvaged what we could.”
Hill was too busy with the clean-up job to think of taking pictures of the damage. “I was more concerned with the liability. We had it boarded up within a day.”
The call was made not to reinstall the three sections of stained glass. The high cost of repair was a deciding factor, but so too was the history of music in the Presbyterian church, considered carnal by many clergy and churchgoers back in the 1880s.
When the 1866 Gothic structure was rebuilt after being razed by fire in the 1890s and stained-glass windows installed, no music, neither hymns nor an organ, was allowed during church services.
Those opposed to music eventually wound up in coffins and the debate was over, says Hill. “We call those crucial funerals.”
A Casavant pipe organ arrived from Montreal. It found a prime spot, up in the balcony – obscuring the view of the window.
“We just want to see them go in a place where someone will enjoy them and enjoy the history.”
“The way the window was installed initially, above the main door with a full balcony, it would have been very prominent,” says Hill. “But with the organ there, you can’t see the window inside the church from the pews. Most people wouldn’t know it was there.”
After meeting with the insurance company, the church deemed bricking up the window the best option, he says.
Hill imagined the pieces of stained glass gathering dust and slowly collapsing in a backroom over the next 30 years.
Around that time, retired schoolteacher and stained-glass hobbyist Stewart Munro attended a funeral at St. Andrews.
“I knew the window was destroyed by the storm and I started asking around what they were going to do with the glass, if they were going to restore it,” he says. “I wouldn’t be able to restore it. That’s not what I do.”
But the conversations led Munro to the idea of volunteering to refurbish and repurpose the glass into pieces of all shapes and sizes that the church could sell off in a fundraiser.
“Where they weren’t going to rebuild the window, I didn’t want to see them throw it out,” he says. “I don’t think I knew myself what I was going to do.”
Bricklayer Eddie MacEachern called Munro when the pieces were removed.
“Some came out in really nice big chunks,” says Munro. “For the two large ones, all I did was take them home, polish the glass and put on a coat of wax to preserve them. They’re over a hundred years old from what I understand. I don’t know if they found out where it came from, whether Halifax or Fredericton. It was neat to work on, something someone would have worked on more than 100 years ago.”
Much of the rest was “sort of intact, but in really bad shape,” he says. “It was like a big jigsaw puzzle. It took about a month just go to through the pieces and clean them up.”
“I’m not sure that we’d want them in a tavern. If the cheque was big enough, we might just turn our back.”
Munro, who picked up the stained glass hobby after doing
a weekend course about 25 years ago with husband-and-wife
Bob Gaynor and Ellis Roddick’s Northwind Studio in Landsdowne, took everything apart, even many intact pieces, because the lead holding them together was so old it couldn’t be fixed.
He spent almost every morning for nearly three months tinkering with the glass in his workshop at his home in an old farmhouse in Hardwood Hill between Scotsburn and his native Lyons Brook.
“I had it all over the place and all organized,” he says. “I was going to leave it for a winter project, but I couldn’t leave it alone. I really enjoyed figuring it all out.”
He completed most of the work in November. The window, which once featured an alter, a bible and flowers, was turned
into 14 separate pieces. He’s since made six lanterns with leftover bits of aqua-coloured glass.
Munro, who followed up his initial lessons with a few evening classes with Atlantic Stained Glass in Halifax to learn soldering techniques, estimated that repairing and reinstalling the large pieces alone would have tallied up to a bill in the thousands.
Hill says seven pieces have been sold, with three large and four smaller ones still available to anyone with a reasonable offer. He says the church has no record of who made the original windows.
“We just want to see them go in a place where someone will enjoy them and enjoy the history,” he says. “I’m not sure that we’d want them in a tavern. If the cheque was big enough, we might just turn our back.”