Friends of the Windows ‘open the doors to beauty’

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Windows in St. James Chapel. (Photo courtesy James Steinkamp Photography)

It was some time around Christmas 1994 when Neal Ball first saw the stained-glass windows that illuminate St. James Chapel in the Archbishop Quigley Center, now the pastoral center for the Archdiocese of Chicago.

At that time, the building was the home of Quigley Preparatory Seminary, a high school for boys discerning whether they had a vocation to the priesthood. The gothic structure at 835 N. Rush St. was built in 1917 during the tenure of Cardinal George Mundelein.

“I’d been curious about the building all my life,” said Ball, then a consultant in planning and public affairs for corporations. “I walked by it so many times. I rang the bell, and the school was closed for the holidays, but there was someone on the staff there to show me the chapel.

“I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the stained glass. It was clear to me I was looking at a masterpiece. Just as I was leaving, I noticed a small hole, a missing piece of glass, about the size of a quarter. It was in the figure of Paul, St. Paul.”

Ball told the person who was showing him around that the hole should be fixed, and that he would make a donation to pay for it.

“He said there might be some other places that needed work,” recalled Ball, now retired.

More than a quarter-century later, Ball is still president of Friends of Windows, the non-profit group he formed in 1995 to restore and maintain the stained-glass windows in the St. James Chapel. He and a small group of fellow volunteers — nearly all octogenarians — continue to raise money and awareness about the windows with weekly tours and monthly concerts.

The chapel is frequently used for weddings as well as for daily Mass for archdiocesan staff members.

Ball and his colleagues hope they can find younger people to continue their work.

“We very much would like to have the involvement of people who know the chapel and its value to the city,” he said. “We very much would like to have help from any volunteer who can commit a significant amount of time on a regular basis.”

Friends of the Windows was born after Ball met with Father John Klein, then president of Quigley Seminary, and learned that the extent of the necessary work was more than one person might want to take on.

When Klein asked about forming a group, Ball countered by saying the first thing that needed to be done was an evaluation of the condition of the windows, and suggested that the best course of action would be to seek expertise from France. The St. James Chapel, named in honor of the patron of Archbishop James Quigley, was inspired by the architecture and design of the 13th century Sainte-Chappelle in Paris, and the French had a good history of preserving historic buildings, including those with stained glass, Ball said.

“We arranged a meeting with consul general of France at the chapel, pointing out that Quigley is done in French Gothic style,” Ball said. “It has that French connection. The consul general said he would look into it, and a couple of months later, I was in Paris and was introduced to the office of the Ministry of Culture responsible for restoration.”

That led to a French expert coming to Chicago, with the French government paying for his time, and those in Chicago paying for travel and other expenses, including erecting scaffolding in the chapel.

The expert came, did his evaluation and found that the situation was more dire than anyone realized.

“There would be glass on the floor in two years,” Ball said. “There were very serious problems throughout the chapel, even though to an ordinary eye, you wouldn’t think so. Everything seemed quite secure. He was especially concerned about the great rose window at the west end of the chapel. … It wasn’t neglect. Without expert examination, that would have gone undetected.”

The price tag to repair just the rose window topped $250,000, Ball said, and it became clear that there needed to be a more formal effort to raise money.

“My view was that the school was already struggling,” he said. “It provided a large percentage of the students with financial aid. It was clear that help was needed and warranted, especially as Quigley made the decision that the chapel would eventually be opened to the public at certain times for tours and concerts and other events. It was a contribution to the entire city.”

That led to the birth of Friends of the Windows.

It was around that time that Joan Carey got involved. A friend saw a notice in the bulletin at Holy Name Cathedral saying that docents were needed to give tours of St. James Chapel. Recently retired, Carey lived in the neighborhood and had been a docent at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Carey coordinates the tours, which are available from 9 to 11 a.m. Saturdays. They resumed in March after being suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Friends of the Windows also hosts chamber music concerts in the chapel the second Saturday of each month. No tickets are necessary, and donations are accepted.

Carey said she never tires of witnessing guests first impressions of the chapel, especially when the sun is shining through the windows.

“I can’t even begin to tell you the response from people when they walk through those doors for the first time,” she said. “We’ve had responses from tears, to some that you couldn’t print. The response is unfailing. It is never-changing. It is total awe. You’re opening doors to beauty they have never seen or experienced.”

Restoring the windows took 14 years, Ball said, far longer than the months-long project he originally envisioned.

“There are scores of thousands of pieces of glass, every one of which had to be removed, examined, have a new lead frame made for each piece,” he said.

Ball doesn’t have a total price tag for the work, which was paid for by Friends of the Windows, the Archdiocese of Chicago and other donors, but he can say the Friends of the Windows have raised about a million dollars over the years.

Friends of the Windows has provided a $100,000 conservation fund which the archdiocese will be using for inspection, repairs and preservation of the windows.

“They are marvelous examples of stained glass from that time,” Ball said. “They have historic importance. They include stained glass techniques from as early as the 13th century and as late the 20th century.”

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