Messages in glass

Stained Glass window
The four panels in A Song of Creation depict the splendour of the heavens and Earth. Photo by Richard Pook.
 on May 1, 2021

St. Mary, Oak Bay, parishioner authors book to preserve church’s stained glass windows

Flag for Victoria Fusiliers
A flag with the regimental colours of the 88th Regiment, Victoria Fusiliers. Photo by Richard Pook.

Elizabeth Laugharne, 98, has been a parishioner at St. Mary the Virgin in Oak Bay for over ten years. In 2011, then-incumbent John Macquarrie asked Laugharne and her fellow parishioner Pam Jarvis if they would be interested in sorting through the church’s “archives” — at the time this consisted of several large dust-covered boxes sitting in the church’s basement. Now, the dusty boxes have been transformed into a catalogued and safely stored archival collection. During the process of sorting through the boxes, Laugharne and Jarvis made some incredible and intriguing discoveries. These included a 1782 edition of the King James Bible; an old key belonging to a church in England, also called St. Mary the Virgin (Laugharne contacted the church, but they had no idea how the key ended up in British Columbia); and two flags, the regimental colours of the 88th Regiment, Victoria Fusiliers, which the volunteers established an archival file on.

During the clutter clearing, Laugharne also put together an archival file on the church’s remarkable — a word Laugharne used throughout our correspondence — stained glass collection. St. Mary has 54 stained glass creations in or hanging on windows in the church. St. Mary was consecrated on October 4, 1911, by Bishop Perrin. When the church’s first incumbent, George Andrews, died of cancer in 1924, a church committee raised funds for a stained glass window dedicated to his memory. The first of St. Mary’s stained glass windows was made in England and installed that same year. From there, more donations followed, and many of the windows are dedicated to the memory of parishioners.


Three Stained Glass

In the early 2000s, St. Mary’s assistant curate, Andrew Halliday, conducted research into the history of the windows and placed informational leaflets below each window. By digging around on the Internet and in various archives, including the provincial archives, the diocesan archival library and the Oak Bay community archival library, Laugharne was able to build on Halliday’s work. The church’s own archives contained obituaries, newspaper records and minutes of vestry meetings, and correspondence from donors that provided further clues.

Many questions, however, remained unanswered. For example, the panels known collectively as The Works of Mercy depict interactions between early European settlers and First Nations and Inuit communities. The unique and highly unusual panels also depict elements of the Canadian landscape, including icebergs.  Despite extensive digging, Laugharne wasn’t able to locate any information about who commissioned the panels and why. Many of the windows were made in England, and the firms that made them have now shut down, making it hard to track down the artists whocrafted the panels. Two local artists, however, were on hand to discuss their work: Edward Schaefer, former partner in the Victoria-based Mercer and Schaefer Glass Studios; and Imke Pearson, a resident of Oak Bay, who donated her prize-winning window Jesus and His Mother to the church in 1982.

A year earlier, Pearson had also been commissioned to create a stained glass design for the eight-paned window above the altar. Her design, Genesis, consists of a sunburst radiating from a central circular window out into seven surrounding square windows to form a cross. Speaking of the window and her work for St. Mary, Pearson said, “I was approached by the architect firm Wade and Williams to create a window over the altar. It was a wonderful wall because there were no other windows, so I knew my modern design wouldn’t interfere with the traditional painted windows. I wanted to create a burst of spiritual sunlight using beautiful handblown glass.” Pearson’s windows have now been in St. Mary for 40 years, and Pearson is hopeful that the windows will be around for many years to come. “The windows are part of my legacy. I have windows all over Victoria; I only have a few left at my home for my children. My husband was still alive then, and he helped with installing the windows. I’ve always created artwork, even before I took courses in stained glass, while I was teaching high school, I would come home and create artwork.”

Stained Glass window
David, The Harpist depicts David playing his harp to a flock of sheep. Photo by Richard Pook.

Using the information they had gathered, Laugharne and Jarvis put together a display about the stained glass windows in an old glass-covered display case. Interest in the windows grew. Churchmouse Books, which St. Mary opened in 2016, was also attracting more members of the local community into the church building, and Laugharne was receiving many queries about the windows. The idea to write a book about the windows came to Laugharne one day while she was working the desk at Churchmouse Books. As she stood there, surrounded by thousands of books, Laugharne thought to herself, “Perhaps I should write a book about the stained glass collection!” 

Incumbent Craig Hiebert was enthusiastic about the idea of creating a book to preserve the history and messages contained within the church’s windows. “One of the most striking things about the church at St. Mary is the kaleidoscope of light and message that the windows provide,” said Hiebert. “They cover the gamut of biblical stories, as well as the ongoing human endeavour to live as those who have the light of Christ shining through them in every aspect of their day-to-day living. Past, present and future beam into the space — and, I pray, outward into the world through everyone who is touched by the gospel message represented in these windows. We are so grateful for Liz’s passion to share the story of these messengers.”

Laugharne immediately set to work. Little did she know, when she started on the project, that she would be doing the bulk of the work in the midst of a global pandemic. The book, it turned out, was a lifesaver. When I spoke with Laugharne over Zoom she talked of how working on the book helped preserve her mental health: when the news got too distressing, she escaped into the book and into a world of beautiful coloured glass and past lives.

Messages in Glass starts with an overview of the history of the church and the symbolic use of colour in stained glass windows. The book then goes on to offer interpretations of the stained glass art in each section of the church building. While many visitors to the church asked about the use of colour or the animals that appear in the windows, Laugharne found that few asked about the messages behind the windows, so she felt it was important to address those in her book. To that end, each section about a window opens with a Bible quote to help readers and visitors understand the biblical significance of the images. After all, that’s what stained glass windows were originally intended for: to communicate Bible stories and Christian messages visually for those who couldn’t read. 

Stained Glass Cross
Genesis, designed by Oak Bay resident Inke Pearson, features a vivid sunburst in a central oval window which spills out into seven adjacent square windows, forming a cross. Photo by Richard Pook.

Perhaps one of the most striking and touching windows in the church’s collection is The Ascension, which depicts a man wearing a life preserver kneeling and looking up at the sky. The man is George Henry Corbett, a Canadian in the Royal Air Force who was killed over England in 1940 just before his 21st birthday. For many years, relatives of Corbett placed a red rose under the window every November 11. Laugharne’s favourite window, however, is Jesus and His Mother, which is unusual in depicting Mary’s relationship with her adult son. As Laugharne commented: “When you stand in front of the window, it has a clear message. Mary was not just the mother of Jesus; she lived a giving Christian life. We talk about her as a mother, but not about the rest of her life. She was more than just the Blessed Virgin — she continued to spread Jesus’ message after his death.”

Messages in Glass will be published in paperback in May, and it is hoped that there will be an ebook version available in the future too. All profits from the sale of the book will go towards the fund for the preservation and restoration of the windows. Laugharne also hopes that her book will increase appreciation for the windows and, in turn, ensure their preservation for many years to come. Given that the first window to be installed in St. Mary will turn 100 in 2024, there is reason to be hopeful that Laugharne’s book will achieve its goal, and that her tireless efforts to bring the history and meaning of St. Mary’s stained glass to light won’t have been in vain.

For further information, or to pre-order your copy, contact St. Mary the Virgin, Oak Bay, at 250-598-2212 or [email protected]. ca. You can also contact the author directly at 250-658-2548 or [email protected].

  • Naomi Racz

    Naomi is the editor of Faith Tides and writes creative non-fiction with a focus on nature, the environment, sense of place and parenting.

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