Safeguarding the Windows at Grace Episcopal Church

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When the Willa Cather Foundation was gifted the Grace Episcopal Church by the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska in 1969, the motivation to preserve the site stemmed from it being the home church of Willa Cather and her parents. Two of the eight stained glass windows that adorn the church were purchased by the Cather children in memory of their father Charles F. Cather and their mother Mary Virginia Cather.

From the outside, the Grace Episcopal Church is a modest structure that may not garner a second look from most people who pass by. The asset that brings praise to the church is its beautiful stained glass windows that spectacularly glow from inside the sanctuary on even the gloomiest of days. These special windows were made in the Munich Pictorial style by the Emil Frei Art Glass Company at their factories in St. Louis, Missouri, and Munich, Germany.

Through your generous support of our Campaign for the Future, we enthusiastically welcomed Nicholas Frei of Emil Frei & Associates to help us preserve the windows that were long ago made by his great-great grandfather’s company. Efforts included repairs to the stained glass, delicate washing of the interior and exterior surfaces, perimeter putty replacements and painting, and installation of new tempered glass coverings on the exterior that replaced aging and yellowed plexiglass.

While all work required great care and attention, repairs to the cracked glass were by far the most delicate. Three small pieces of glass required removal and replacement, including two pieces in the apse window depicting Christ and his children, and one in the Annunciation window. Frei was also able to remedy a poor past repair on the apse window through the removal of a sandblasted piece of glass and replacement with a properly painted piece of glass. Additionally, all windows were cleared of accumulated soot by washing with a mild solvent.

Our skilled facilities team then worked with Nicholas Frei on efforts to preserve the windows and make them more visible from the exterior. Perimeter putty replacements ensure that each section of stained glass is securely held in place and free from water infiltration. The exterior wood frames were scraped and thoroughly painted before being covered with clear tempered glass to protect the windows. 

It is not uncommon to find new discoveries when preservation efforts are underway, and this project was no exception. According to Nicholas Frei, windows were generally fabricated at Emil Frei's St. Louis studio. At times when the St. Louis studio was overly busy, inexpensive German labor made it feasible for some projects to be sent to the Munich branch for fabrication; however, it seems that customers could choose the Munich studio, as may have been the case with these commissions. While at work, Frei discovered a sticker on the vent of the “St. John the Evangelist” window that indicated it was made in Germany at the Munich branch. This window and “The Good Shepherd” window that Cather purchased to memorialize her father were placed in the church in February 1930; the Webster County Argus states the two windows, “present much of beauty to the structure both from within and without and implant tender thoughts permanently within the minds of the worshipers.”

Additional research and the trained eye of Nicholas Frei also helped to confirm that the two windows memorializing Cather’s parents were commissioned at different times. Small details of the perimeter frames indicate that they were not painted at the same time, owing to subtle differences in how the gold leafed highlights (silver stain) were done, as well as inconsistencies such as leaves that have rounded lobes in one window and pointed lobes on the other.

So far as we can surmise, the first Emil Frei window installed at Grace Episcopal was the window portraying the Savior blessing his children that was commissioned to honor Rev. John Mallory Bates. Newspaper accounts indicate that the seven-foot-high window was also manufactured in Munich. It is composed of several hundred pieces of glass that are joined together by lead soldering, and it arrived in Red Cloud in three sections that were put together, framed, and installed by local contractor E. H. Fitz.

By July 1931, two additional windows had arrived from Munich: “The Enunciation,” which was given in honor of Miss Mollie Ferris, and “Christ Knocking at the Door,” given as a loving tribute to Mrs. Mary McCall. While Willa Cather’s sister Elsie Cather attended the dedication of the church’s stained glass windows in 1937, it isn’t clear when the window in memory of Mary Virginia Cather, who died in 1931, was installed. Carrie Miner Sherwood, who was a life-long friend of Cather and a member of the church’s Ladies Guild, wrote to Cather’s brother Douglass in August 1936 regarding the design and cost of “The Nativity '' window that memorializes Mary Virginia Cather, and subsequent letters indicate a desire to have everything completed by the first of December.

While more remains to be discovered about the original fundraising and manufacture of the other windows in Grace Episocopal Church, you can learn more about Emil Frei and his studios in this month’s Annotations From the Archive feature. For now, we can all rest assured that recent gifts have ensured these awe-inspiring windows will be enjoyed for generations, while they continue to memorialize the lives of Cather’s beloved parents and showcase the handiwork of the Emil Frei studios. We are especially grateful for grant support from the Woods Charitable Fund, given in memory of our dear friend Lucia Woods Lindley, that aided in the care and preservation of the stained glass windows.

How You Can Help

Slowly but surely, the Grace Episcopal Church is being preserved thanks to generous donations to our Campaign for the Future. If you, too, would like to support the rehabilitation of the church, please donate online or mail your gift to the Willa Cather Foundation, 413 N. Webster Street, Red Cloud, NE 68970. To learn about naming and recognition opportunities available in connection with charitable donations, please contact executive director, Ashley Olson, at or (402) 746-4892.

A special thanks to Nicholas Frei of Emil Frei & Associates for images of the Grace Church window repairs.

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