Wabeno parish unveils restored stained glass windows

By Lisa Haefs | For The Compass | December 9, 2020

Restoration project at 114-year-old church was five years in making

WABENO — It was May and the COVID-19 pandemic was bringing the United States to its knees. Then, a ray of hope at the 114-year-old St. Ambrose Church.

The stained glass windows were returning.

Carol Bartlein, left, Norma Johnson, Clare Huisman and Fr. Philip Dinh-Van-Thiep, pastor of St. Ambrose Parish in Wabeno, stand near a stained glass window depicting the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The parish recently restored its 15 stained glass windows. (Lisa Haefs | For The Compass)

“It was a shot in the arm, a ray of hope,” Carol Bartlein, a member of the St. Ambrose window restoration committee, said. “It gave people a whole new lease on their parish life.”

The project was five years in the planning, designed to restore the 15 stained glass windows that have graced the church to their original splendor. At times, organizers admitted, it seemed like an insurmountable challenge, even as COVID-19 gripped the nation, but they never wavered.

“These are the heart of the church,” Bartlein said. “This project has given new life to our house of worship and new life to our parish community.”

St. Ambrose was constructed in 1906, with the steeple and bell added in 1908. The windows have always served as a beacon, depicting the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Holy Family, saints and apostles, but not the parish’s namesake.

“It’s a mixture,” Fr. Philip Dinh-Van-Thiep, pastor, said. “We really don’t know why they chose these particular depictions.”

The original church included 11 stained glass windows with another four added in 1913 when the structure was enlarged. Instead of simply constructing an addition, parishioners split the structure in half and added 30 feet to the nave, an intricate project. The work also included repairs to the existing windows and a complete redecoration, with a total price tag of $2,800.

One hundred years later, time had exacted its toll. Members of the parish and their pastor noticed missing lead, cracks in the stained glass, years of grime accumulation, rotting sills and inefficient storm windows.

It was time for another major project, and the congregation was supportive.

“For over 100 years, parishioners have prided themselves in maintaining our church,” Clare Huisman of the restoration committee, said. “It was clear that major restoration was needed to recapture their original beauty and add energy efficiency.”

“Their beauty had been lost,” Norma Johnson, another restoration committee member, added. “It was our responsibility to make sure that beauty was able to continue.”

In 2018, a committee was formed to study and promote the project. Allan Staige Stained and Leaded Glass Restorations of Onalaska was selected to do the work, with a price tag of $79,000.

The next step was determining whether a congregation of 84 registered families could raise the needed funds.

“Whenever there has been a need, the members of the parish have always given generously to projects that supported the spirituality and future of St. Ambrose,” Bartlein said.

“We grew up here. We were baptized here, confirmed here and married here. Many of us have buried loved ones here,” Huisman said. “People have a strong affinity to this church, and we knew we could count on that.”

The Green Bay Diocese approved the work after the church demonstrated its financial strength and parishioner support. The commitment of parishioners was key, with 10 families sponsoring individual windows — at a cost of $5,000 each — and many others pledging varied amounts.

“Anyone who gave even one penny was appreciated,” said Huisman.

“Work on the windows began Feb. 3. Staige is known for its attention to detail and, by doing the work in its own facility, the restoration was not interrupted by COVID,” said Fr. Dinh-Van-Thiep.

In early May, the crew installed the first five restored windows and removed the remaining ones. While they were being restored, the openings were filled with insulated panels, allowing church services to continue.

In late June, Allan Staige, his son and nephew returned nine completely restored windows. In early October, they reinstalled the remaining window, repaired the wooden frames and added storm windows.

“Parishioners are in awe of the restored windows,” Bartlein said. “The interior of the church gleams with their reclaimed brilliance and beauty.”

While regular church services have continued, plans for a formal blessing and dedication ceremony remain uncertain due to the ongoing pandemic.

“The community hopes that the windows will be the highlight of St. Ambrose Catholic Church for another 110 years,” Bartlein said. “This has given people a whole new lease on parish life.”

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