How I Created over 3400 Sq. Ft. of Contemporary Stained Glass on a “Dare”

Click on any image to start Slideshow; the full view photos of both windows at the end show as black on slideshow. Click there to see full images.

[envira-gallery slug=”St. Luke Church Stained-Glass Windows”]

     In 1966, I was a Roman Catholic nun, teaching junior high classes at St. Luke School in Erie, Pennsylvania. While I was at our school lunch having spaghetti, the pastor of St. Luke’s Church, Father Goodill, joined us.  He was excited about his plans for his new basilica-style church.

Having studied basilica church design, I was familiar with the placement of tall stained-glass windows along the side walls close to the roof, known as clerestory windows. Fr. Goodill said that he wanted to have images of Catholics who played a major role in the development of our country depicted in each window. Each wall would measure more than seventy feet long, with space dedicated to seven windows, about twenty feet high, a total of 1400 square feet per side.

     “Nobody will be looking up that high to see those people!” I objected, much to the chagrin of the pastor.  I said that stained glass was about transforming light, not about creating illustrations.  Historically, medieval churches were places where illiterate people could learn about the Bible by looking at the stained-glass window illustrations.  European churches and early American churches are excellent examples of narrative paintings on glass.

Now, on a roll, I continued, “Seven separate images in the windows will fragment the wall space.  I think that one sweeping image could dominate all the glass on each wall, giving a feeling of unity to your entire church. An abstract image would be timeless in years to come. If the image was powerful enough, the concrete pillars separating each window would become ‘invisible’ ”.

Father Goodill was not an abstract art fan nor could he envision my idea of one continuous design. His response was, “Well, if you know so much about stained glass windows, why don’t you design them?”
I took the “dare” and said, “Sure!”

That night, in bed, I thought to myself, “Fools step in where angels fear to tread.” While I had studied art for several years, I knew nothing about creating stained glass, let alone coming up with a cohesive design for the whole church.  I did know that my favorite art element was color, and that’s what these windows were all about. Undaunted.  I was certain that the windows could be treated as one beautiful source of light, flooding the space below with hourly changes of color. I knew that the inspiration to create these would come.

As a nun, I meditated daily, and soon, the vacuum in my brain was replaced with colors, images and words. I began to formulate the design with the inspiration of my favorite mystic, John, author of one of the Gospels. His writings, filled with spiritual symbolism, always held special meaning for me.  As a child, I had memorized the Prologue to his gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God…”

My plan was to integrate the words of John with a brilliant palette of colors, a beautiful source of inspiration.  I had been doing calligraphy for the last ten years and loved the letter shapes of every style I had learned.  However, this project called for hand-designing each letter to fit the space and the overall design, No problem!

When I recall the early days of designing, I remember the daily flow of creativity and inspiration merging into fulfillment. There was no stress or worry about the final outcome.  I knew in my heart that the final windows would have a powerful impact on the congregation. Using colored pencils to fill in the spaces, I drew the designs to scale.  My motto when faced with any art project was, “It’s just a matter of time.” I had to work on the scale drawings only on my Christmas and Easter vacations, since there was no other free time available.  I was teaching four different classes of fifty or more junior high students daily, creating lesson plans in Math, History, Science and Art, correcting papers, and designing art curriculum on a state level. My summers were full, attending the University of Illinois, working on my Master’s Degree in Art Education.

The day came for the presentation of my designs to Father Goodill. I reviewed the themes and placement for medieval clerestory windows with him. The East side, the rising sun, commemorated the coming of Christ, while the West side, the setting sun, usually depicted the belief in the coming of Christ in the future. I explained the reasons for the different color palettes on the East and West windows, as well as the geometric lines on the East side, and organic ones on the West. I held my breath as he quietly scanned the scale drawings.  Finally, he said, “Yes, this will do.”  I thought I was going to faint.

While I was immersed in the scale drawing, I focused on line, color, words and symbolism, not even guessing the transformation of light to color as the sun would shine through the stained glass. From early morning to sunset, the spectrum would change from warm to cool colors.

While I passed the church every day, I didn’t allow myself to go in and see how my windows were progressing.  At last, the final day came, probably one of the most memorable in my life, right up there with the birth of my children!  Standing alone in the church that day, I was amazed by the transforming effect of the light streaming through the colorful glass. It flowed softly in rainbow colors all over the pews and the floor, flooding the space with beauty. John’s words danced down each side of the church.  I felt humbled, standing there, and wondered how I could have possibly volunteered to take on such a monumental project.  I was inspired by John, who knew how he wanted his ancient words to be presented anew.

There were other smaller windows to be designed; the Baptistery and Sacristy windows, less than twelve feet tall and about six to nine feet across. I used the symbols of faith (cross), hope (anchor), and love (heart) in the Baptistery window, against a blue background, symbolizing the waters of Baptism.  For the Sacristy, where the priest vests himself for Mass, I placed the words he uses while vesting: “I will go unto the altar of God, to God who gives joy to my youth,” an Old Testament quote.

The most important window, which stood over the main entrance, was immense, thirty feet high and twenty feet wide.  What made the design difficult was the placement of two wide concrete pillars set on either side of the center which effectively split the space into three vertical areas.

Father Goodill thought that a cross would be perfect for this window. After all, it was a Catholic church.
“That won’t work, because the concrete pillars will cut right through the cross, ”I objected. However, he overrode my objections, and spent hours creating and coloring his design.  This was the only distasteful part of the project. Everything else had just flowed so easily. When he saw that the arms of the cross were ”broken” by the concrete pillars, he agreed with my comments and wanted to know if I had a better idea.  Again, I drew a blank (which I didn’t tell him), but promised to come up with something striking.

Having focused on New Testament quotes in the clerestory windows, I decided upon an Old Testament theme to coordinate the overall interior design of the church.  This window faced the cold North light, and needed something to warm up the light. How about a pillar of fire, like the one Moses followed during the Exodus?  That fit easily within the verticality of the window formation and would be a source of inspiration for the congregation as they came and left the church.  This met with Father’s approval.

When my plans were being processed by the stained-glass manufacturer in Cleveland, Ohio, Fr. Goodill and I visited the site.  It was a huge three-story warehouse, with full size brown-paper replicas of my design on the walls. In front of each were scaffolds supporting the actual stained glass. The supervisor asked me to check for color and placement accuracy. The sight of my work on such a huge scale took my breath away! It was reproduced exactly as I had drawn it, but shining in vivid color!

I am writing this over fifty years after completing the project that I had not the slightest intention of creating.  Since then, I have made the trip from Colorado to visit St. Luke’s several times. The most significant one was bringing my children to see their mom’s work.  They loved walking into the colors. My feelings remain the same: overwhelmed, humble, and deeply grateful for the opportunity to create an inspired, beautiful sacred space.

The Symbolism of the Clerestory and North Windows

The East windows in medieval cathedrals faced the rising sun, symbolic of the arrival of Christ. Radiating warm geometric lines emanate from the one piece of clear glass which emphasize Christ as Light of the world. The scriptural quote from the gospel of John speaks clearly of the impact of the “Word becoming Flesh”. During the first part of the day, the church is flooded with warm rays of yellow, orange and red.
Size: 20 feet high, 70 feet long.

The West windows in medieval cathedrals illustrated the last coming of Christ at the end of the world. Here, John speaks of the divine as the beginning and the end of life, nourishing mankind with renewal symbolized by the “living waters”. The imagery here is cool, flowing water punctuated by bright ripples, taking the last rays of the sun.  In the afternoon, the church is filled with cool rays of blue and green.
Size: 20 feet high, 70 feet long.

The North window is a combination of the cool, flowing colors of the west windows and the warm, sharp lines of the east windows. This fiery image warms the north light as it flows through the glass. The Old Testament speaks of the pillar of fire in the desert which symbolizes the presence of God. In the New Testament, the gospel of John states: “I am the Light of the world; he who follows me need not fear the dark.” John 8:12    The steady light from this window falls upon the main aisle, softening it with a kaleidoscope of color.
Size: 30 feet high, 20 feet wide.

Dr. Jacqueline M. Shuler

As I approach my eightieth year, I am daily engaged in creating art. You can see my digital paintings and calligraphy on