Church members need to dig deep to preserve artistic heritage

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RIVERSIDE, Iowa (KCRG-TV9)- Members of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Riverside take pride in preserving the historic art objects in their 110-year-old building. But preservation can have a price. And for members of this rural Washington County parish, that price for just the first phase of restoration work could amount to more than $200,000.

The interior of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Riverside on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2017. The church has more than 60 large stained glass windows and the first phase of restoration work will cost more than $200,000. (Dave Franzman/KCRG-TV9)

More than 60 large stained glass windows from Germany line the interior of the church opened in 1906. The price back then was just $3,000. The stained glass has an insurance value now of about $1-million dollars. But the Rev. David Brownfield, parish priest, says he will occasionally remind members that the joy of owning can come with the pain of preserving.

And that pain now comes in the form of needed repairs for all that historic art.

“This church is just gorgeous but with that art comes the responsibility of maintaining this heritage that we’ve inherited from our ancestors,” Father Brownfield said.

To the untrained eye, the many stained glass panels look fine. But up close, the strain of decades is apparent. Some of the stained glass windows with religious art are starting to bow after the weight of standing for 110 years. Experts call it compression bowing.

Other windows show some cracks and a few even have individual panes pulling away from the lead that holds the individual pieces of glass in place.

The restoration plan calls for all new protective, ventilated glass on the outside of the church covering the stained glass and disassembling and rebuilding about a dozen large windows piece by piece.

Kirk Prebyl, a stained glass consultant with Glass Heritage in Davenport, said a complete restoration of every one of the 61 stained glass windows would take a considerable amount of time.

“You’re talking about a good one and a half to two year project, beginning to end, if you did every single piece of glass within the church,” he said.

The $200,000 price tag is just what’s needed to start the stained glass restoration. Father Brownfield said he could easily justify a half million dollars’ worth of work, or possibly more, if the resources were available. But members say they have to approach the project like a large banquet—you begin one bite at a time.

And that first “bite,” appropriately enough, actually starts on Sunday, February 12th as church leaders will host a “Pancakes for Preservation” breakfast for the parish to explain the need for the artistic restoration work.

It’s more than just stained glass. The church also has a pneumatic organ (originally air pumped by hand) the is one of only three remaining in the U.S. that needs attention and there are other projects needed both for general maintenance and artistic preservation.

Cindy Michel, a lay leader at St. Mary’s, says the amount needed for restoration is considerable when considering the size of the parish. But members do have a history of digging deep to preserve their heritage.

“Our ancestors put all the time and work and money into this church. We need to step up as well to keep this beautiful building going,” she said.