By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published January 26, 2017
ATHENS—As the St. Joseph Church community leaves its century-old home on Prince Avenue, the parish’s treasures are moving too.
Workers took out nearly two dozen neo-Gothic stained glass windows recently to preserve them until a new church is built on its Epps Bridge Parkway campus on the edge of Athens.
Clear plastic covering replaced the ornate windows as the pieces of art were dismantled and tucked into protective wooden boxes with care.
“We’d promised them that the things that are important to them, we’d bring them along. They are special to the people,” said Father David McGuinness, pastor.
A preservationist will inspect and repair the windows between the dismantling and a future installation to keep them for future generations.
The windows mean so much to the community as they inspire people, said Pete Konenkamp, a 20-year member of the congregation. The life of Jesus is shown in the windows.
“We long ago outgrew this space. But there are so many special memories, my son’s first Communion. My step-daughter was married here,” said Konenkamp.
The former St. Joseph Church and School sat on a six-acre plot in downtown Athens that Catholics purchased in 1873. It is being purchased by Homes Urban, a South Carolina firm. Plans are for the former church to be used as a sit-down restaurant and 126 apartments built on the site.
The Epps Bridge Parkway property already is home to the parish school, since the 2012-2013 school year. All worship is now also taking place on the new campus. The only activity still held at Prince Avenue is St. Joseph Charities.
Father McGuinness said the parish has more room to accommodate the various language groups and ministries by moving five miles away to nearly 47 acres. There are more facilities for the parishioners to come together to know each other and more opportunities to participate in spiritual events together, such as Stations of the Cross, he said.
The sale price is about $5.25 million. The proceeds will help pay for a future church. The goal is to build the church without taking on debt, said Father McGuinness.
About 2,000 people attend one of the seven weekend Masses. The worship now takes place in the parish center where temporary chairs are set up.
A special Mass to decommission the Prince Avenue church building is expected to take place before the sale is completed in March.
Windows’ origins are unknown
There’s mystery surrounding the windows. Part of the refurbishment project will be to trace the history of the brightly colored windows.
“(The windows) were almost certainly made by German craftsman but not necessarily in Germany,” said Konenkamp.
The church was built in 1912 when all of Georgia was part of the Diocese of Savannah. The windows arrived a few years later. A search of the diocesan archives did not shed light on where they came from. Parish records are also silent. An early pastor was fond of traveling in the Northeast so that’s the area which people consider the most likely site of the windows’ craftsmen, said Konenkamp.
As workers removed the windows, Marianne Parr, of Parr Glass Design, helped to oversee the packing in the custom-made boxes with protective stuffing. Each was marked identifying the window and where it came from in the church. In place of the windows, workers from Foothill Sand to Glass, a North Carolina company, put clear plastic in the frames to keep out the weather.
The Stained Glass Association of America identified them as neo-Gothic windows, meaning they are decorative windows created in the early 20th century to complement church sanctuaries. They use shards of glass held together by lead to create the image.
It will be Parr’s task to examine them in detail. She will reinforce the weak spots, where wind, rain and the sun damaged both the windows and the lead channels in them. Parr also expects to replace some of the smaller pieces of glass. She will do the work in a special studio on the parish campus, where she expects to work during the next year.
Parr said stained glass windows are fading out of favor. First, fewer churches are being built as the number of people attending religious services declines, but also fewer churches are investing in creating the expensive windows, she said. St. Joseph is making an important commitment by restoring them, she said.
“I love the history,” said Parr. “This is remarkable glass of this style. A lot of people have said we don’t know what it is doing in Athens, Georgia. It’s part of the cultural history.”