Local artist restores New Milford church's stained glass

Photo of Katrina Koerting

NEW MILFORD — For more than 100 years, four panels of stained glass bearing an anchor and an omega symbol faced the green as one of St. John’s Episcopal Church’s 34 handcrafted windows.

Those panels now sit on tables in Markis Tomascak’s Dragonfly Studios, where he is cleaning the glass, repairing or replacing broken pieces and putting it back together using new lead. The majority of the glass is hand rolled and hand painted, though the red border pieces are mouth blown.

“It’s more than a window,” said Tomascak, who has worked in glass for 40 years and done a number of restoration jobs for area churches and homes, as well as original pieces.

Once this window’s restoration is complete, the church will only have one more window left that’s considered a “priority one” — a list Tomascak created about 15 years ago when the church first worked with him.

“We’ve been saving up ever since then,” said Kim Polhemus, a senior officer at St. John’s Episcopal Church. “The priority twos have moved into priority one spaces. It’s going to be ongoing.”

The congregation has been holding collections every Easter or Christmas, but is considering starting a fundraiser in honor of the church’s 275th anniversary in 2021. There are also priority threes.

“We have a responsibility to those who came before us and a responsibility to those who will come after us to maintain them for the history of New Milford and to the glory of God,” she said.

Polhemus reached out to Tomascak again several years ago when several boys spray painted the exterior of the church and threw the empty can, breaking one of the windows.

“He had worked for us before and we had a very good experience,” she said. “He’s very talented. It’s a no brainer.”

Work on this window began about a month ago when Tomascak used a cherry picker to remove the windows.

He then took them back to his studio in New Milford, where he completed two cartoon etchings of each window, essentially creating a map on how to reassemble the window. Each etching has notes on the width and type of the lead.

Tomascak then photographs every inch of the windows, examining any cracks. The glass is cleaned and any broken pieces are glued back together or replaced completely. The lead is cut and the glass slotted inside.

So far, only one piece needs to be replaced.

“We don’t replace glass unless we absolutely have to and then we look for the perfect match — if it even exists,” he said. “If it doesn’t, we we look for a reasonable substitute and let the client decide.”

A completed window then has a piece of metal placed across the window and fastened into the wooden border so that the glass is secure but not rigid.

He said the stained glass, which is only about 1/8 of an inch thick, has held up well, doing the work of a regular window for much longer than regular windows, while also displaying art and telling the story of Christianity.

“Each piece is unique,” Polhemus said. “They’re unique in their craftsmanship, not in the story they tell.”

It’s a tradition that dates back to the medieval times when the majority of the population couldn’t read and didn’t have easy access to books.

Tomascak said the written word was limited or nonexistent with the majority of the stories passed down through generations. The windows were used to share these stories, focusing on Christ’s life or the crusades.

“The windows were informational,” he said.

Stained glass has been a staple of church architecture for centuries and includes symbols that tell a story, Rev. Jack Gilpin said.

“It's a way of aesthetically telling the story of God's love for God's people,” he said.

The glass at St. John’s includes an alpha and an omega, a reference to a passage from Revelation where God says he is the “Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. The passage is meant to show that God is internal, Gilpin said.

“I find it a source of great comfort and strength,” Gilpin said.

Gilpin said he enjoys going into the church on the weekdays during St. John’s music program and seeing the light stream through the stained glass.

“Seeing the quality of the light coming through those windows in the afternoon is really psychotherapy all in itself,” he said. “It has an immensely calming and quieting effect on the soul and temperament that really I don’t get from anyone else.”

Staff writer Julia Perkins contributed.