Friday, November 7, 2008

Angel, Dark Angel

My parish church is closing. Probably. Maybe. Churches throughout the Diocese of Scranton are closing, and St. Mary's in Nanticoke (a.k.a. Our Lady of Czestachowa) is shortlisted for closing. Though Bishop Martino has recently stated that nothing is final, nothing is decided yet. Maybe he's waiting for election results to come in to let him know which parishes voted according to his directive issued last week.

I'm operating on the assumption that St. Mary's will be closed, and that we will be consolidated along with two or three other parishes into a single church with no air conditioning, poor handicapped access, and ample parking for up to 30 vehicles. Word is that St. Mary's will be a backup or secondary church to be used for special occasions, like when more than one Nanticoke couple wants to get married in a Catholic Church on the same weekend. Still, I worry that it will fall into disrepair while it is idle, and some things will be lost forever due to neglect.

Among these are the stained glass windows. These are magnificent works of art, perhaps as old as the church itself, more than a century old. They bear the names of their donors, and some of these names are familiar to anyone who lives in Nanticoke. For example, one was donated by a "K.M. Smith." For decades I have assumed that this means it was donated by the children of the K.M. Smith Elementary school. But only last week it occurred to me that this was donated by the school's namesake. Now I want to find out who K.M. Smith was.

I've started photographing these windows. This is something I have thought about for a very long time. Ideally a project to capture these windows as photographic images would involve a large-format camera on a rig that allows it to image a small section of each window at a time, and create a mosaic of the window that will avoid having any distortion due to perspective issues. Less ideally the project would be undertaken by some guy with a Nikon Coolpix L4 who was waiting for his cousin's wedding to begin. But, hey, it's an imperfect world.

So before the wedding, and after Mass the next day, and after Mass today, I have been trying to capture each and every stained glass window in the church. The pictures are not perfect: they are sometimes blurred, rarely encompass everything I would like to grab, and always involve some perspective distortion. But they're better than nothing. I will not let this church, and these windows, pass beyond the veil unremembered.

I've got them all, I think. I'll go back and get them again and again, as often as I can, trying to achieve quality through quantity. But I've got them all. Here's one that's been a favorite of mine since I was a little kid.

This window is remarkable for several reasons. It may contain the only image of the adult Jesus in the main church windows. (I think there's another in the baptismal font area, but I think that's a later addition.) It's the only window that I could see that shows signs of wear, on both the images of St. Michael and Jesus. (A cleaning attempt gone awry?) It's the only one that shows an angel, as far as I know the only angel who is also classified as a saint. (Gabriel is a named angel, but I'm not sure he/she/it is considered a saint.) It's the only figure in the windows holding a weapon. (Others hold miniature churches, books, staves, crowns, but only Michael gets a sword.) sure as heck looks like a black guy.

Try to understand: Nanticoke was a coal mining town, settled primarily by Roman Catholic Poles, though several other nationalities and religions were represented. Until the middle of the last century the population was fairly static: your parents lived here, you lived here, and odds were your spouse was someone from in town. Very few people moved into town. So very few black people moved into town. Having a black guy in a century-old stained glass window in church is a pretty big thing. (Though I cannot say for sure if anyone else has ever remarked upon it.)

Brightness and contrast enhanced to show detail
Of course, one could argue that St. Michael was an angel, and as we all learned from the St. Joseph's Baltimore Catechism, "Angels are spirits that ain't got no bodies." (Well, that's how I remember learning it. From the older children.) So the artist had pretty free reign to depict St. Michael in whatever way he wanted. As a black guy with an Afro or whatever. And apparently, that's just what he did.

Damn, he looks pretty pleased with himself.

For all these years, a black guy has looked over the Polish parishioners of Our Lady of Czestachowa, sword in his hand, wings on his back, crown on his Afro, a crocodile-lizard-serpent version of Satan under his feet.

Note the distinctly Medieval footwear here. I only just noticed the flipped-up
portion of the hem of St. Michael's skirt. Is he preparing to pee on Satan?
No wonder the crocodile-lizard-serpent looks worried.

It's a little thing. Just a window, just a detail in a building slated for closing. But it's part of the story of this Parish, of the city of Nanticoke itself. And it's something that should not be lost. Somebody needs to remember it.

Title Reference: "Angel, Dark Angel", short story by Roger Zelazny.

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