Historic church window restored: Stained-glass artist Susan Mohler

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Published in the North Island Eagle, March 2018

By Trish Weatherall

A piece of local history has been restored. Port Alice stained-glass artist Susan Mohler of Seaside Studio and Gallery recently refurbished an original stained-glass window from St. Paul’s Anglican Church that once stood at the original town site 5 km North of Port Alice’s current location. St. Paul’s was famous for being on ‘Ripley’s Believe it or Not!’ as the only church in the middle of a golf course. The church was built in 1927, and a year later the golf course was developed around it. Wire screen was installed over the windows, but errant balls still found their way to break glass according to an archived document on the history of the Port Alice Golf Club.

The authenticity of the window was confirmed by Port Alice mother and daughter Arlyn and Gail Lind, who lived in Old Port Alice and relocated to the new village in 1965.

“The church was there when I lived there and in fact, I was baptized there,” said Gail. “Reverend Lomas often made house calls and I remember his visits to our home in the old town. He was very English and came for tea. He always had a pocket full of balloons that he handed out to children.”

St. Paul’s has been gone for decades, burned in the early 70s along with many of the village structures. The original stained-glass window passed through various residents’ hands at garage sales, until it was finally purchased by Port Alice archivist Evelyn Hartford and displayed at the Port Alice Heritage Centre for the past several years. Hartford contacted Mohler who was intrigued by the piece and agreed to restore it at no cost.

“An art restoration project can be a bit like forensic detective work,” said Mohler. “As the repairs progress historical information about an art piece may be revealed. This piece raises questions, as yet unanswered, when was the piece originally made, by whom and where? Was it part of a set of windows? How was the original work funded?”

Restoration is a lengthy process. Before beginning any work, Mohler took notes regarding size, materials, extent of damage and other notable features. Then she dismantled the original piece, cleaned, repaired and replaced glass, and installed it in a new wood frame.

Mohler explains the stages of the restoration, which she estimates took about 20 hours to complete.

“Stage one, the ‘take down’. First the piece is taken apart carefully as with damaged stained-glass pieces there is often broken glass involved. Twisted lead came [‘came’ is the material used to hold the individual pieces of glass together] and metal reinforcements which may be rusted or corroded are also common and must be removed. Old lead came and solder is now known to be quite toxic. A thorough cleaning of the remaining glass pieces may involve fine steel wool, heavy scrub brushes, lots of hot water and simple dish soap.”

During take down, Mohler noticed the St. Paul’s window showed that several repair attempts had been made over the years.

“Old lead came sections were mixed with copper foiled sections,” she said. “Interestingly, in this project, an earnest crafter used copper foil inside out trying to glue the pieces back into the original lead came tracks … an intriguing and ingenious effort.”

Stage two is the “build up” and actual repairs.

“Restoration involves trying to maintain the authenticity of a piece while restoring with available materials,” said Mohler. “Replacing broken glass pieces can be problematic because older glass is very hard to match, and the colours made today do not match the colour pallettes of many years ago. Although some contemporary glass manufacturers have been making glass since the 1800s they cannot recreate the antiquing that happens with old glass that has been hanging for decades. In past restorations I’ve been able to replace broken pieces with glass recovered from other vintage pieces found in junk shops and antique stores.”

In this project, Mohler was able to closely match the original glass colours with three new glass pieces.

“While working on this piece I could feel the presence of past artisans who had cared for it,” she said. “This restoration project was photographed from start to finish in order to be able to create a record for the future in the form of a picture album.”

She also created patterns while the individual pieces were apart to allow reproductions to be made in the future.

“In restoring this legacy, we hope to be able to enhance and add to it in the future,” she said.

Mohler had the finished piece and a project photo album on display at the Feb. 15th Heritage Fair in Port Alice organized by Seaview Elementary School. It is now back at the Port Alice Heritage Centre for the public to view by appointment only, contact the Village Office at 250-284-3391.

The project photo album is available online at the studio’s website www.seasidestudioandgallery.com