By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published January 8, 2004
While some monks at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit arouse taste buds with the brandy-soaked fruitcake they create, another monk patiently labors in his workshop to enlighten congregations through his stained-glass windows.
The light of Father Methodius Telnack’s artistic vision shines through windows in churches and other institutions in places ranging from Blue Ridge Mountain towns in Appalachia to a community with Aztec roots in Arizona. He has been at work for over 50 years.
There is the cross he created high atop the riverbanks of the Chattahoochee that reflects the sunlight for retreatants at the Jesuit Ignatius House Retreat Center, and the drops of grace coming down from heaven in a window at St. George Church in Newnan. His most recently completed project is a cross with abstract flowers coming out of it at St. Philip Benizi Church in Jonesboro. “The idea is the cross is transfigured into glory.”
He also designed St. Philip’s Stations of the Cross.
One project in the works is his windows in the style of old Celtic manuscripts for the eucharistic-themed chapel of St. Thomas More Church in Decatur. In 2002 he also created the stained-glass windows above its narthex that introduce the chapel’s eucharistic themes with symbols of a chalice, grapes and bread and on the window perimeter the four evangelists’ symbols of an eagle, lion, ox and man from the Book of Revelation.
“(In the chapel) the windows all refer to some biblical story of a miracle of Jesus. In that way they’re following the tradition of stained glass being instructional. They say in the Middle Ages stained-glass windows were instructional to teach the illiterate,” Father Methodius said. “It’s just meant to make a very beautiful space … It will be a little jewel box meant to enhance the temple of Jesus, the sacred presence.”
On a cold December morning the monk from Detroit stands in his studio, a building with high ceilings and large windows made of pine board. The building once served as the main monastery.
Going strong at 75, the Cistercian monk spoke in a quietly enthusiastic way about the work he does five hours daily with the help of a few other monks.
“I like to think I’m working in isolation, not influenced by other trends in stained glass,” he said.
That day his cheerful helper was novice Bernard Stocker, a former pre-med student from Florida, who was working on design patterns, saying, “It’s just very creative. I love the design aspect, tracing and cutting up the glass.”
Said his teacher, “Hopefully down the road you’ll be able to do some designs.”
Each project takes at least four months, unless Father Methodius uses his subcontractor in North Carolina, where he has the help of about 25 people. In December most monks are focused on fruitcake production.
“Hopefully I’ll have more help after Christmas,” he said.
They specialize in handcrafted glass, blown by mouth into a bottle, that comes in square sheets from the Blenko Glass Co. in West Virginia. Walking over to a large blue sheet of Blenko glass set on a window sill, Father Methodius pointed out thick and thin sections which create natural irregularities and variations in shades of blue in the same piece, noting that blue is a good color for backgrounds as it represents infinity. Blenko glass has a prismatic effect upon the light and “is the most beautiful glass available.”
After a full-scale design is made on a computer a pattern is made with which to cut the glass and put it together “like a jigsaw puzzle.”
On a large table used for making designs lay computer designs for the St. Thomas More Chapel, including one that reads “trust,” with an image of Jesus walking on water and the disciples depicted with their arms outstretched in a red boat upon aqua water.
After the leaded glass is arranged in a design on the table, flexible extrusions of lead are bent around the edges. The lead strips are soldered together, and the panel is made waterproof and stronger by brushing special cement on it—using a formula he received from Joseph Llorens Sr. of Llorens Stained Glass. When he met Llorens “he was in business 60 years. When I first started he gave me a gas-fired kiln and encouraged me to do the work.”
Additionally, designs may be painted on the glass before cementing and then fired in a kiln.
The monk, wearing a black sweatshirt over his long white habit, said the technique is relatively easy but that it is time-consuming and requires patience. The process is more intuitive than rational.
“I can’t tell you how to do it. Your fingers have to learn. That’s the way art is; you can’t rationalize everything you do.”
On the floor lay the full-scale pattern for cutting glass to create a sunflower for a window in the sacristy at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Decatur. “St. Bartholomew’s has a nice spirit of bringing people into the various elements of the liturgy and the flower arrangement is very important.”
Before noon prayer the monk walked over to the abbey store, noting the beauty of the bleakness of December and of the bare tree branches on the grounds. Above the gift shop doors are windows of the Madonna and Child and of a vine suggesting the tree of Jesse and the heritage of Joseph and Mary.
Father Methodius, the monastery’s business manager, explained that while some materials have changed, the monks make the leaded-glass panels basically the same way French artisans did in the Middle Ages. Prices are negotiable, with proceeds benefiting the monastery, which is self-sustaining.
“It helps keep us afloat. These are financial hard times. We have about six or eight people in wheelchairs no longer in our work force. We have to work doubly hard to keep the place afloat. Stained glass is a significant but small contribution to the overall economy of the monastery,” he said.
The monk then entered into the dark, quiet space of the abbey church, pointing out a part of his first project in 1957, the tall windows in shades of blue, pink and white, which allow light to filter through and splash pale abstracts around the interior. They are Cistercian “grisaille” glass, a clear, white or tinted glass of geometric forms from simple to complex used by the order since the Middle Ages.
In building the monastery, which was completed in 1961 after years of backbreaking labor and money shortages by the monks who came first to Conyers in 1944, the Cistercians originally planned to keep the order’s medieval tradition of shunning stained glass for a more Puritan style. But an abbot general paid them a visit during a record heat-wave summer and advised them otherwise.
With his interest in art and having studied architecture at the Catholic University of America before deciding to enter the monastery in 1949 after coming on an Easter retreat here, Father Methodius recalled, “I volunteered to do the stained glass.”
The former Marine also helped pour concrete for the walls and pillars that soar to the vaulted Gothic arches of the ceiling.
“I did a good deal of the architecture too. The bell tower was my design,” he said. However, “I didn’t know anything about stained glass. I got all these books from the Atlanta public library.”
He also wrote letters to stained-glass artisans around the country and was pleased to receive a response from Muriel Willett, wife of Henry Lee Willett, whose business had designed the windows for Atlanta’s Cathedral of Christ the King. He felt a little too skilled for the book she sent him, “Stained Glass for Amateurs,” until he actually read it and found “it’s the best book I have ever seen on the making of stained glass and theories of stained-glass work.”
He became so excited about the book that he wrote the author, the wife of a Presbyterian minister, who later came down with her husband after his retirement in their motor home to visit him. He also wrote to Blenko, who told him “come on up.” He did and received instruction from one of their designers, Wayne Husted.
The third abbot of the monastery, Father Augustine Moore, OCSO, said in a Georgia Bulletin interview in 1989 that the effect of the monastery windows, with the transforming light they invite into the large nave area, is essentially one of peace for Catholics as well as other visitors. “A lot of non-Catholics feel God in there.”
Father Methodius said making windows is also a spiritual experience, noting how a lot of the Scripture readings and feast days happen to coincide with the designs he’s working on. And as a “professional monk,” it is especially satisfying to create windows suited to each faith community.
“Each church has its own spirit. All I try to do is reflect the attitude and aspirations of the people I work with. I try to go in with no presuppositions. I listen and we will come up with some ideas about the subject matters, about the style of the windows,” he said.
“It’s always just really a thrill to be able to put something in the community. We never repeat our designs. They’re all just special … It’s really, really nice when I get them in (and) people really appreciate them,” he said.
He recalled one project for a mission in Solomon, Ariz., with a Native American community who are the stock from which Indians immigrated to Mexico and formed the Aztec culture. After researching the subjects, he created six big and two small windows with a pantheon of Aztec gods in the background and Christian mystics and saints in the foreground, including Our Lady of Guadalupe, St. Juan Diego and St. Francis Xavier, the patron of the Southwest.
As the community is very knowledgeable about their heritage, Father Methodius said the windows’ non-Christian elements attest to how Aztec belief in their gods helped prepare for later mass conversion to Christianity brought by the Spaniards.
“When I put the windows in, this Indian lady came in and looked around and said, ‘These are our windows.’ It’s the satisfaction I get from that that keeps me going and making stained glass. I live for that.”