Anne Martin’s earliest memories are filtered through the prism of stained glass.

Her family’s Longport beach house was on the same block as the Church of the Redeemer. Each Sunday, the children took to a back alley to sit in little chairs under the guild hall’s rose window as a movie projector wound through retellings of the gospel.

When she was old enough, she sat in the stiff wood pews of the sanctuary. Her gaze often turned in awe to those imposing arches of multicolored glass.

“I could look at them forever, because there’s so much to see,” said Martin, now 63. “It’s a very calm place in the hearts of the people who went there — then, now and in the future.”

Martin is now part of a massive effort mobilized to resurrect both the historic church and its signature windows after they were destroyed in a fire during 2012’s derecho storm. Like many others, she stood in the blowing rain that June night and watched the flickering orange light illuminate the glass from within.

“Then they just melted down and broke,” she remembers. “And then the rose window broke out because the heat and flames started coming out.”

The Episcopal mission, built in 1908 by former Quakers, attracted admirers and worshipers of all faiths and, so, it inspired a passionate movement to see it restored.

“We knew we had to rebuild,” Martin said. “That was clear right away, and we all just helped in whatever area we could.”

As they worked to resurrect their windows, they benefited from several good turns: a supportive diocese, a comprehensive insurance policy and — most fortuitously — the survival of the prestigious firm that designed the original stained glass.

“Amazing, in fact,” said Jenkyn Powell, general manager of Willet Hauser Glass Co. in Philadelphia.

Powell also remembers watching the blaze on the news and wondering what the church was going to do with its windows. Only a handful of glass blowers in the country still create antique glass on a large scale, and firms such as Willet, which designs and assembles the windows, are just as scarce.

“It was so sad to see all that go,” he said. “Then, like a week later, we’re starting to work on it.”

Stained glass art

Powell’s firm delivered the windows that have captivated generations of Longport churchgoers in the late 1930s, said Mike Cohen, a former mayor who became the church’s unofficial caretaker and historian. Edwin Lavino, the mayor at the time, funded much of the work from his own very deep pockets and, as such, had the last word on what was delivered.

“He sent back that beautiful rose window and made them do it many times over because he wanted a different blue,” Cohen said. “He’s paying for it, after all.”

That precision made the work of Willet’s research librarian, Amy Di Grigorio, more difficult. Willet’s extensive archive — which holds 19,500 pieces of original artwork in all — included drawings and paintings by the windows’ designer, George Gugert, but something was amiss.

“This design,” she said, holding up one of the original Lumiere prints, “had never been used, but there was nothing in the file to say it had never been used.”

Just like today, Di Grigorio said, clients often requested alterations right up to the time the window is installed. Because of that, not all of the designs matched photos taken before the blaze.

Indeed, a group of parishioners visited the Willet studios several times in the last year. One of their goals was to replicate Lavino’s special shade of blue. That color is very important because most of the windows incorporate beach themes, from fishing boats to jellyfish to seashells.

“The windows told stories from the Bible, but that wasn’t the only focus,” Martin said. “It was all this wonderful color and iconography and the sea.”

Di Grigorio said the archives also didn’t give any indication of where all the paintings were placed inside the church. Luckily, the church still existed in cyberspace.

“For that, we had to go on Google Earth to figure it out for ourselves,” she said.

The intricate process of actually recreating the windows is an expensive one, with a team of master artisans converging on the project. For Redeemer, the cost is about $900,000. Luckily, its insurance policy included a $1 million rider for artwork, according to Tom Subranni, chair of the church’s board of trustees.

How it’s made

Powell, who’s been involved in glassmaking for more than 30 years, said the process began with making patterns for the more than dozen windows. While the techniques haven’t changed much since the 1930s, this is one area with a dramatic change: the patterns were created on a computer using the archival materials Di Grigorio and others collected.

Then the selector chooses each pane of glass, which is assigned a number on the pattern. While many of the individual panes in the Redeemer windows were manufactured in the last 10 years, Powell said a fair amount were pulled from the company’s collection of old glass. Some of the panes had to be custom-ordered. For instance, the English firm that created the church’s “streaky glass” — named for its swirls of color — had closed, forcing Willet to turn to a Seattle glassworks.

Next, the glass is cut to shape and passed on to a painter, who adds depth and texture to the window’s figures with paint with iron-oxide and silica. While it’s safer than what would have been used in the ’30s — no lead involved — painter Elaine Bell Susko still has to take precautions.

“Any dust hopefully gets sucked back up” into a HEPA filter above her work station, Susko said. “And we’re not supposed to eat or smoke while we’re painting.”

After the glass is fired to preserve the painter’s work, the panes are fitted together into lead cames, which are soldered, forming the body of the window.

“This is what everyone thinks of when they think stained glass, but it’s really just the assembly part,” Powell said.

From there, a glazing compound with the consistency of putty is pressed into the spaces between the leading cames to solidify the window. In the 1930s, the compound would’ve incorporated lead oxide, a carcinogen also known to cause bone disorders, memory loss, organ failure and even personality changes.

“It was probably a short life, going a bit goofy at the end,” Powell said, of his forebears.

Glassmaking today

There’s still a certain amount of health risk involved in glassmaking today, he said, particularly when restoring old windows. That’s why Willet monitors its employees’ blood and has strict safety protocols. When working on old windows, for instance, workers use a suction hood at their table to remove dust.

“The ones most susceptible to lead poisoning are children,” he said. “That’s why I’ve made it a point people who work here don’t take lead home with them.”

The final step, steel supporting bars, are soldered across the face of the windows to give them strength. Without them, Powell said the windows would eventually crumple in on themselves.

Redeemer’s windows are nearing their completion, with just a few more windows left to assemble. They will likely be installed, behind clear hurricane glass to protect them from the elements, in a matter of months.

Moving forward

After the fire, it felt like a person had died, Martin said. Now, she’s optimistic for the new church’s future.

“The windows in the church are so beautiful,” she said. “I really cannot wait until they’re complete.”

Susko said each artisan who touches the windows inevitably leaves a mark, although their names won’t be etched in glass.

“There’s a certain amount of humility you have to have because this was designed by someone else,” she said. “They want to have windows that look like the windows that were there before.”

There are still many aspects of the glass the artists have had to improvise because of gaps in the archival materials. Susko, for instance, had to decide how to paint the fish on one of the windows because the photos provided no detail.

With input from Cohen, the historian, about what species are native to the Jersey Shore, she eventually settled on a pompano, a round fish with a toothless smile. “The happy fish,” Susko calls them.

“I think of the kids in the church and what it’s like for children in the service,” said Susko, who was raised Catholic. “I remember looking at the windows, looking around for something. I thought of that when I drew the fish.”

Powell said his team takes their respective jobs very seriously, as the windows they create today will be around for another century or more.

“If stained glass is done right, it sings,” he explained. “The entire piece, and I’m talking the entire church, is like a symphony. You walk in, you see the entire environment, and it’s like hearing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and — like that — you see it, you hear it all. The high notes, the low notes, that all correspond to different colors in the windows.”

Contact Wallace McKelvey:

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