- The Washington Times - Friday, March 17, 2006

NEW ORLEANS — The stained-glass visage of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque — gazing heavenward, holding a rosary and with heart afire ? graced the back of a historic New Orleans church for 80 years. It honored those harmed by a devastating hurricane.

Then another horrific storm, Hurricane Katrina, slammed into New Orleans, shattering St. Margaret Mary’s black habit and cream-colored hands and blowing her face to the sidewalk outside St. Theresa of Avila Church.

The artwork, now mostly reassembled by local artisans, is one of countless stained-glass church windows reduced to shards by the same Aug. 29 storm that wrecked many New Orleans homes and businesses.

When the storm slammed into the Gulf Coast and the city’s flood-control system failed, it destroyed tens of thousands of buildings.

Only a handful were churches, but the heavy winds caved dozens of weak stained-glass windows and sent tree branches through others. The painstaking work of rebuilding mangled lead frames, matching old glass, salvaging usable pieces and rebuilding the work of previous artists is just starting and could take a decade, local artisans say.

“You’ve got to like puzzles. That’s for sure,” says Anthony Fontana, a craftsman who has been working and living in a trailer parked at Attenhofer’s Stained Glass in Metairie, La. “It can be overwhelming.”

His apartment in New Orleans’ Mid-City neighborhood was flooded, leaving him temporarily homeless, but Mr. Fontana says the work of restoring church windows has been fulfilling.

“It’s a sense you’re helping out, especially on the iconic work,” he says, chiseling caulking from the edges of a broken window at a church in Chalmette, a decimated community downriver from New Orleans. “It makes you feel humble, especially right now. With all the destruction, it makes you realize what’s important.”

More than 1,100 of the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ 1,240 buildings were damaged by wind or water, though many of those are school or administrative buildings. The Rev. William Maestri, a spokesman for the archdiocese, says seven or eight of the structures are considered historic buildings; he didn’t know how many stained-glass windows might need repairs.

The towering three-section window behind the altar at the 158-year-old St. Theresa of Avila Church was demolished by Katrina and likely will need to be redesigned entirely, says the church’s pastor, the Rev. Teodoro Agudo. He believes the window may have been as old as the church and that it succumbed to age and high winds.

The St. Margaret Mary window, now reassembled in the stained-glass restoration and design studio at Attenhofer’s was installed originally in the back of the church in memory of a Sept. 29, 1915, hurricane that swept over Grand Isle to the south and through New Orleans. The Grand Isle storm was more powerful than Hurricane Katrina, and Father Agudo suspects the image of St. Margaret Mary, a French saint canonized shortly before the window’s installation, may have been commissioned to replace a piece damaged by that storm.

Cindy Courage-Knezeak, owner of Attenhofer’s, says she and other artisans are constantly aware that stained glass is communal. It is unlike other mediums, such as sculpture or painting, for which a single artist might conceive and execute a work. Her restoration work on a church window often isn’t the first and probably won’t be the last.

The ongoing evolution of the stained-glass work is one of the things that makes it challenging and important, she says.

“You have to honor the work of those before you, the forgotten craftspeople,” Miss Cour- age-Knezeak says. “I’m very respectful. I feel I’ve been put here as a caretaker. And I’m an artist, too.”

A month after the storm, shortly after the city was pumped dry of the brackish water that had covered 80 percent of it, she and her employees began visiting churches, collecting what shards and pieces could be found.

In some cases, only indistinguishable bits of glass and twisted lead frames were left, but she did find a few whole pieces, including the painted face of a crucified Jesus, blown into a dark corner behind an altar. The face and a piece bearing a painted nail, probably from Jesus’ right hand, is all that might be salvageable from the window.

Mr. Fontana stretched the lead frame over a light board, trying to get it closer to its original shape. He is sorting shard after shard, trying to match the glass color to something that might be available now. In some cases, the shards will have to be sent to glass manufacturers to see if they have glass from the period that might match.

“The goal is to keep as much of the original as you can,” Miss Courage-Knezeak says. For example, it would be best to use the piece bearing Jesus’ face even though part of the shoulder is broken off.

R.K. Bischoff, director of Florida State University’s master craftsman program, says glass restorers often begin to note the unnamed craftsmen who worked before them on a particular piece.

“As you open it up, you start to see the personalities of the people who restored it or made it to begin with,” says the professor, who is not working in New Orleans but has done restoration work elsewhere. “Now, the windows become personal.”

Miss Courage-Knezeak, whose Metairie home was left with a 3-foot-by-8-foot hole after Katrina, says the window restorations have become personal to her for another reason, too.

“We want to put our lives back together…. This is something we’ve always done,” she says. “Now it has special meaning.”

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