Catholic San Francisco


(Photo by Rick DelVecchio/Catholic San Francisco)

St. Boniface Parish development director Jim Baun points out cracks in an art-glass depiction of St. Cecilia.

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Historic St. Boniface painted glass overdue for restoration
November 28th, 2012
By Rick DelVecchio

Many who attend services at St. Boniface Church in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco know that sacred space has its own distinct mood. It’s an atmosphere that owes much to the art-glass windows that fill the space with the sun’s glow illuminating detailed biblical and historical figures painted on the panes.

But these precious windows, like the church, are more than a century old. Cracked, bowed and worn from the effects of gravity and ordinary wear and tear, they are desperately in need of an overhaul.

“We’ve got a problem here,” said Jim Baun, development director for St. Boniface, as he described the scale of the repair job. “We’ve got a huge problem here.”

The parish, one of the poorest in the archdiocese, is planning a restoration project that will see all the painted panes removed, rebuilt and restored as they were when artisans for the famed Von Gerichten Art Glass Company of Columbus, Ohio, created them in 1908. There are many glories to the church that rose on Golden Gate Avenue just 26 months after the previous building was destroyed by one of the last fires that broke out after the great quake. But the Von Gerichten windows are perhaps the crowning touch.

“The windows make the church – the interior of the church, anyway,” said Baun, who has completed a five-year effort to document all the windows. Without the windows, he said, the church would be like “a perfect smile with a tooth punched out.”

The church has engaged an Oakland firm specializing in stained-glass conservation. Each window will have to be removed and restored individually, a process that will take months per window and cost millions in total.

“The project is going to restore and conserve them for future generations,” Baun said.

The story of the St. Boniface glass is part of the story of the expansion of the immigrant church in the West in the 19th century. Catholics in Germany left in part to flee religious persecution. Ludwig Von Gerichten of Bavaria established a business that grew with the U.S. church and eventually outfitted 850 churches, becoming known as the best in the field.

Baun pointed to one scene of St. Peter with what looked like a profile of Disneyland’s Magic Kingdom in the background. It’s actually a depiction of the eccentric Bavarian King Ludwig II’s Neuschwanstein Castle, a Von Gerichten signature.

“The windows are of great historic and artistic value,” Baun said.

As Baun toured the church recently, homeless men and women slept on the pews – they are supported by The Gubbio Project, and their presence in the pews in the morning is another example of the Franciscan spirituality that been a part of the neighborhood since St. Boniface was founded. The light from the windows helped make for a soft and a peaceful scene.

The windows are painted in a style called Gothic realism, a term whose meaning is obvious at a glance at any figure or scene. The figures are highly detailed, with their flowing beards, finely pointed eyelashes, realistic reflections in the eyes and distinct emotions. They differ from the impressionistic representations usually associated with church stained glass.

“This is the real thing,” Baun said. “These guys got the eyelashes. It’s like looking at a Rembrandt versus a Picasso.”

The painted figures “look like real people,” he said. He noted that “the prodigal s.on looks tired.”



From November 30, 2012 issue of Catholic San Francisco.


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