Each window was captured by photographer Carin Quirke and printed on metallic paper.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — First Congregational Church is a lot lighter nowadays — both in its physical attributes and its future prospects.
And also in its spirit.
But that now light-filled nave came with a difficult decision last year when the 70-member congregation agreed after months of debate to sell the 10 Tiffany windows that once lined the walls.
"It became an issue with regard to sustainability," said Margeret Whitney, co-chairman of the revisioning committee. "So the sale of the windows, although not the happiest set of circumstances in the world — there were many people, including me, who love the windows — but one has to think of church as a group of people not as only a building. And that's what we are concentrating on is our sustainability."
The sale of the windows to a private museum in Texas garnered the congregation $1.1 million — a hefty sum that will help support the congregation and its mission for years to come. The church also sold the mid-century commercial building it had long used for religious education and offices last summer for $260,000.
Like many parishes, First Congregational has been struggling with declining membership. The titans of industry that once sat in the pews — and donated those Tiffany windows — are no longer around. When the offer came in for the stained-glass works, the members thrashed out the pros and cons of parting with the treasured objects.
About a year ago, the windows were removed and sent off to Texas. Last month, new clear, energy-efficient windows were installed in their place, filling the nave with a light it hadn't seen in nearly 90 years.
The revisioning committee had returned the church to a more traditional look. Whitney said the stained-glass windows, including two non-Tiffanys, were installed over a period of about 30 years beginning at about 1903.
"This building was built in 1865. And the people who were in North Adams and attended this church at that time, were the industrialists of the area. They were the leaders of the community, the Cadys, and the Richardsons and the Hunters, all of the names you hear in North Adams," she said. "Many of them were the people who donated the windows over the course."
In a way, they bequeathed the congregation twice — first through the donation of the windows and secondly through the realization of their sale.
The congregation had been offered initially $650,000 for the 10 Tiffanys but it reached out to a local stained-glass consultant who lived nearby, Julie Sloan, who was able to negotiate with purveyors Adrian Hamers Inc. of Larchmont, N.Y. The final purchase price was $1 million and Hamers gifted the congregation another $100,000.
"It's not meant to be part of the operating budget, it's meant to sustain us here so that we can focus on other ministries instead of worrying about the day to day and whether we're going to be able to be here to do the things we're hoping to do," said the Rev. Carolyn Peck.
Over the past year, the congregation has also embarked on some other building renewal including upgrading the electrical and investing in energy efficiencies. A previous project had relocated offices and programs into what had been empty space in the back of the church. It's also looking to do some painting and repairs and replacing the pews' dated pads.
Moderator Lois Daunais said the Center for Ecological Technology had covered 85 to 90 percent of the cost of insulating and "we had a donor in the church who was so excited about the fact that we're doing this that she generously donated rest."
The result is a brighter more efficient structure that can continue to host the congregation's programs and partnerships including the Berkshire Food Project, and AA and Boy Scout meetings, and take on new missions such as an immigrant program.
"It will just open our hearts and our building to a variety of different uses and ways. It's much more uplifting," said Peck.
The Tiffanys and their biblical images aren't completely gone. Again, another neighbor had the expertise to capture the windows photographically and they now are framed and hung in order of where they used to be.
Daunais said a member of the church, Kathy Denault, "thought it would be really neat to retain the memory of the pictures."
"And then we invited members of the congregation, friends and families to make a donation, in memory or honor of a relative to fund the cost of this photo project," she said, later adding, "we were very, very pleased with the photographs and extremely pleased with the way they have come out."
Their first attempts to photograph the windows didn't feel right so they turned to Carin Quirke, who spent two days on "tables and ladders" at different times of the day to capture how the light came through.
"They were beautiful, I feel like I spent a lot of time with those panels," she laughed. "I think it was a problem with getting rid of them that you kind of touched on, which is that a lot of people were very attached to them and just couldn't quite feel right about selling them. This just keeps that memory here."
Primarily a portrait photographer, Quirke said she's been doing more art photography since moving to North Adams. She also called on colleagues in New York for advice on how to shoot them. They were then printed on metallic paper to capture the "glimmer" of light by a printing company in Albany, N.Y.
Quirke said she does work for nonprofits that often think these kinds of project are out of reach.
"So it's been a challenge to make it affordable," she said, adding some of it is a donation of time and effort. But the windows were important "as part of the fabric of the community."
The church still has four stained-glass windows — the two tall non-Tiffanys that no decision has been made on, the large rose window on the front and a smaller circular window above the sanctuary that has a new light behind it. The new windows on the sides have details similar to the woodwork in the sanctuary.
Whitney noted there was no stained glass when the church was built, though there may have blue or amber at some point.
"And so it's been interesting that, you know, there is this iteration of the glass. We've sort of returned to the traditional," she said.
Peck said the goal is to be a "visible and viable presence here," something that would be difficult if the congregation couldn't maintain itself.
"I think the more we reach out, open ourselves up like we have with the windows, then more people will be aware of what's happening here and be able to connect," she said. "Because it's harder for folks to be interested in coming in, if they're unaware of who we are right now. But if we reach out, it's a little easier for them to cross the threshold and get involved in different ways."
She said the North County clergy have begun monthly meetings to figure out how to do more unified events. Daunais pointed the church's "open and affirming" position and its use for benefits such as the concert series it hosts.
"We have to re-envision church, and it's not the same as it used to be years ago," Peck said. "So how do we do this together as a community?"
Daunais said a longtime congregation member in her 80s remembered how she used to come to church with her grandmother and they'd sit by a particular window and bond over the Bible story behind it.
"I thought when she first started telling the story, she was trying to explain why we should never say goodbye to the windows," she said. "But what she was really saying is I love that window. And I will love looking at the photograph. But I love even more that we're staying viable as a congregation."
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