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Visual Music: Jewels in Stained Glass

by Linda M. Bosteels, Distinctly Oklahoma
April 8, 2009

First Presbyterian Church of Oklahoma City is an impressive sight, standing majestically at the corner of NW 25th and Western. The building and campus were built in two stages: the Chapel, Watchorn Hall and administration offices were built in 1956, and the Sanctuary was added in 1964. The campus covers almost a square city block, with neo-Gothic architecture, soaring ceilings and carved oak paneling. The top of the steeple, towering 170 feet into the air, can be seen for miles.

Although the structure itself is a striking stone work of art, it is not the edifice that people remember about First Presbyterian Church, but the 73 stained glass windows, resplendent in jewel tones of sunflower yellow, candy apple red and electric blue, which adorn the Sanctuary and Chapel.

The windows in the Sanctuary and the Chapel were designed and built by William and Anne Lee Willet of Willet Stained Glass Studios of Philadelphia, Pa. Their son, Henry Lee Willet, and his wife, Muriel, continued the art of the studio after William's death.

In 1977, Willet Studios merged with the Hauser Art Glass Company, founded in 1946, to become Willet Hauser Architectural Glass, the largest stained glass enterprise in North America.

Recognized around the world as one of the foremost creators of stained glass, Willet Hauser has created and/or restored windows in over 20,000 churches and institutions. Prominent examples of their work are located in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.; the Cadet Chapel at the United States Military Academy at West Point; the Princeton University Chapel; Grace Cathedral, San Francisco; and the Church Center at the United Nations in New York City.

Willet Studios' artisans created the windows at First Presbyterian Church using techniques established in the 12th and 13th centuries, when Biblical themes were depicted giving the common person, who could not read or write, access to the scriptures through the pictured images.

Under the guidance of Reverend Dr. C. Ralston Smith, a committee from First Presbyterian Church chose the stories to be depicted in the windows. Internationally known stained glass artist and Willet principal designer Marguerite Gaudin worked closely with Henry Lee Willet, developing his concepts into magnificent scale drawings in both opaque and transparent color. Willet artists Louis Boermeester designed the doors and screens, while Odel "Billie" Prather designed the Chapel symbols and screens. The windows were fabricated in the Philadelphia studio and shipped to Oklahoma City by truck. Dr. Henry Lee Willet, president of Willet Studios at the time of construction, referred to the stained glass windows as the "Jewels of the Southwest" at their dedication on November 29, 1964.

Construction of these windows and their installation into the towering church building was a painstaking and monumental task. Gayle Cox, church historian, provided the following from the church's archives: "Each pane of the stained glass was assembled on site as a small section of the overall window by two installers from Willet Studios, who worked opposite each other on the installation of the same pane to prevent its falling through the window. The panes were soldered together, then fitted into its groove. This was the same method used to build stained glass windows in the ancient cathedrals of Europe."

The 73 stained glass windows range in size from breathtaking panels 35 feet high and 15 feet wide, to smaller panels 20 feet high and 7 feet wide. The windows glow in radiant hues of purple, red, green, blue and yellow, and contain different scenes that relate to a central theme.

The Invitation Window, located on the Chancel wall behind the pulpit, is the first window to greet worshippers as they enter the Sanctuary. The center section was the focal point of the decorations displayed at the 176th meeting of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church held in Oklahoma City in 1964. The center of this window depicts two major scenes of invitation: the lower window shows Christ and His Disciples at the Last Supper, while the upper part shows Christ with outstretched arms. There are ten smaller medallions surrounding these two scenes depicting individuals who heard the Invitation of the Savior. This spectacular window was the gift of Mr. and Mrs. John W. Nichols of Oklahoma City.

The Narthex window in the south fa├žade, the Witness Window, is the first window that visitors catch sight of as they approach the building. Christ is the central figure, shown sending the Apostles out with the Great Commission: "Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations." This window was a gift of the V.V. Harris Foundation Inc., in memory of its founders, Mr. and Mrs. Vernon V. Harris.

The Rose Window, located in the east transept wall, depicts Twelve Godly Women of the Bible. The inspiration for this window is found in the ambulatory of Chartres Cathedral, Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere, located in Chartres, France. The center focal point is the Virgin Mary holding Jesus, while the twelve surrounding petals contain medallions depicting Eve, Sarah, Rebekah, Ruth, Hannah, Esther, Elisabeth, Mary and Martha, Dorcas, Lydia, Eunice and Mary Magdalene. This beautiful window was the gift of Dr. Wilbert J. Scruton in memory of his wife, Muriel.

The Godly Men of the Bible are portrayed in the window in the west transept, opposite the Rose Window. A "Jesse Tree" window was often found in the great medieval cathedrals of Europe. However, instead of Jesse at the root of this tree, the window shows the heroic figure of John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness. The branches show eight great men of the Bible from both the Old and New Testaments: Noah, Father Abraham, John, Silas, Enoch, Moses, Cornelius and Timothy. This window was the gift of Mr. and Mrs. Carl B. Anderson Sr.

There are also windows honoring David, Moses, Peter and Paul. A nook affectionately called the "crow's nest" is located on the south wall of the west transept, overlooking the Sanctuary. The two windows in the crow's nest are accessed by a narrow, winding staircase, and feature the lives of evangelists Billy Graham and Billy Sunday. The Billy Graham window was donated by Dr. and Mrs. Earl L. Weibel in memory of Pearl Sefton Suppes, Mrs. Weibel's mother, and Earl S. Weibel, Mr. Weibel's father; the Billy Sunday window was donated in memory of Mrs. Lula A. Jordan by her children, Mr. and Mrs. H. Dale Jordan, Mrs. Edith M. Johnson and Mrs. Cozetta M. Smith.

The radiant stained glass windows in the Chapel, highlighted by the large Christ Triumphant Window, are a gift by Kerr-McGee Oil Industries Inc., in memory of their employee, Mr. T.W. Fentem.

The windows of First Presbyterian Church are a tribute to the art, beauty and emotion found in stained glass, as well as the people, themes and stories of the Bible. They are also a tribute to a congregation of Oklahomans who commissioned spectacular works of art in glass not only to inspire the members of First Presbyterian Church, but also the people of Oklahoma City.

The booklet God's Message in Stained Glass, written in 2001 by David W. Hudson, was a gift of the Claude and Opal Huffman family and the Couples Class. This 35-page remembrance displays all 73 windows, with detailed information about the themes and stories in each window.

Unfortunately, time and the Oklahoma heat have taken a toll on the windows, causing many panes to bulge, which eventually may create cracks in the glass. But with the addition of a new Flexan clear protective coating to replace the yellowed coating on the outside of the windows, as well as some needed repairs, hopefully the "Jewels of the Southwest" will shine brightly far into the future for the citizens and visitors of Oklahoma City.