Preserving Our Lady's windows—and her legacy

Some things really are worth preserving. Just ask Tom Williams and Jay Moorman.

A year ago, they did not know each other. But Williams’ love for his family’s legacy, preserved in the walls and windows of a tiny chapel assembled on his grandfather’s farm nearly 80 years ago, and Moorman’s passion for the jeweled nuances of stained glass, brought them together on a project that is as emotional for each as it is historic.

If not for Xavier, the project might never have happened.

“We decided in September that it was the right thing to do,” Williams said. “I just looked at it and thought, how can you tear this thing down with all those windows?”

Williams was standing in front of the tiny chapel on his grandfather’s property in Anderson Township last August, debating whether to go to the expense of preserving it. The original farmhouse was gone. All that remained was the empty land and the little stone structure that had been the site of many family weddings, baptisms and other notable events in the Williams family history.

 We decided in September that it was the right thing to do. I just looked at it and thought, how can you tear this thing down with all those windows?

He kept looking at the six panes of stained glass representing the patron saints of the five Williams children—his father, William, his aunts and uncles, and an aunt’s husband. He noted the round rose window over the door with the Virgin Mary and signs of the zodiac embedded around the edges. All in shimmering colored leaded glass. And he realized that some things, especially those of beauty, must be saved.

But saving the chapel meant renovating it—fixing the roof and flashing, restoring the stained glass windows and adding matching windows to the opposite wall. And it meant moving it to a place where it would be appreciated and used. Williams knew just whom to ask, and when Xavier President Michael Graham, S.J., said he had the perfect spot for the chapel, Williams knew it was going to happen.

With the donation of Our Lady of Peace Chapel, Williams, CEO of North American Properties and a former member of the Xavier Board of Trustees, would carry on his family's involvement with Xavier that includes donating Bellarmine Chapel in 1962 and the Williams College of Business in 1998. He liked that its location would complete the renovation of the academic mall—Bellarmine at one end and the chapel at the other.

The hard part, however, was just beginning. Taking it apart stone by stone, removing the roof and top half, and transporting it to campus was one thing. Finding the artist who could restore the stained glass windows and create new ones was another.

Three of the six restored windows on display at BeauVerre Riordan Studios.

A local search turned up Moorman and his BeauVerre Riordan Stained Glass Studios. It turns out that Moorman’s studio had merged in 2002 with the Riordan Glass Studio Company. Founded in 1838, Riordan was the oldest continuously operating stained glass company in the U.S., and merging with BeauVerre guaranteed that legacy would continue.

Williams liked the fact that John A. Riordan, who took over the Riordan Studios in the 1930s, had studied business at Xavier in 1924. But the surprise was that his company had made the original stained glass windows for the chapel when it was built in 1938—and Moorman had obtained the same stock of stained glass that was used to build them.

“That was wild,” Williams said. “They still have it stocked down in the basement.”

A trip to the studio in Middletown is a trip into the past, and Williams took it with several family members.

“They were so excited,” Moorman recalls. “They had six windows of the patron saints, and they wanted me to make four new windows that would look the same. I told them I had the 40,000 pounds of Blenko glass from the Riordan company that was used to make the original stained glass windows for the chapel, and I had the imprint of the Blenko table and the original colors.”

Moorman had started doing stained glass as a hobby while working at General Electric. He attended Xavier for one year before enlisting in the Marines during the Vietnam War and never returned to school. But his glass skills became his passion, and in 1983, he started his studio as a side business. When he was offered a job to do the windows of the Cincinnati Islamic Center in 1994, he quit GE, hired a staff and went into the business full time.

St. Francis window being assembled.

“I took it up as a hobby, but it became an addiction—the creativity of it,” he says. “I’d do it from sunrise to dusk. I love the different nuances of glass and textures and the different ways you can use glass.”

By the time the Xavier job came to him, he was a skilled stained glass artist and his business was booming. He was largely self-taught, but he also studied under the Riordan Studio’s best artist and most recent owner, Walter Bombach, an Austrian who lived in a monastery during World War II and learned the skill from monks who’d been perfecting the art since the 15th century.

He began working on the chapel windows in the fall alongside his staff of artists in the basement studio he’d built in an old five and dime building the city gave him to renovate as part of a downtown improvement project. The only way to do the job right, Moorman says, was to restore the old windows and create four new ones to match. He would use the old Blenko stock of glass for the job.

It was tedious work taking apart the old windows, replacing the dark gray lead with shiny new strips of pliable metal, cleaning the glass and replacing damaged pieces with glass from his Blenko stock. He and his team then created matching new windows with the same glass to depict four additional saints: the Jesuit founders Ignatius Loyola and Francis Xavier, and the Black Madonna and Our Lady of Guadalupe.

“The old windows are 70 years old,” he said. “They were all bowed out and some were cracking and they were all dirty. They needed restoration.”

On a hot day in late June, Moorman watched as his crew installed the windows into the chapel walls, attaching protective glass on the outside and construction board on the inside. One crew member wiped away a splotch of errant mortar that had dripped onto a triangular piece of glass not yet in place.

Workers install finished windows.

Moorman was pleased with the results, but he was like a mother hen, protecting his brood until they were safely tucked in and ready to filter beams of sunlight—for another 70 years perhaps.

“In the shop they’re great, but once they’re in the setting where they belong…,” he trailed off. “I was blown away. They’re more than I ever hoped for. I’ve got my heart and soul in these.”

Feature Image: Jay Moorman poses with the restored rose window for Our Lady of Peace Chapel.

Read more about Our Lady of Peace Chapel.