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WWII bombed churches and synagogues live on in art glass exhibit

One of 25 glass artworks made with broken bits of glass collected from a bombed-out church in Germany by U.S. Army Chaplain Frederick McDonald, represented by the figure on the right. Photo/Kimberly Winston.

By Kimberly Winston

The man in the trench coat stood in the ruined church, gazing down at a fallen crucifix, its life-sized image of Jesus broken, bashed and half-covered in rubble. 

Nearby, a statue of the Virgin Mary, somehow still erect after intense bombing, looked down with the man, her eyes seemingly full of sorrow.

It was 1945, and the man — U.S. Army Chaplain Frederick A. McDonald — then performed what had become a kind of coping ritual. He reached down among the debris and retrieved a handful of colored glass, slipped it into an envelope he carried just for the purpose and marked it with the name of the church and its location — Liebfrauenkirche in Trier, Germany. 

“I was particularly saddened by the full-bodied crucifix which had fallen from the roof beam,” said McDonald, who died in 2002, decades later. “The face of Christ turned to the sky, visible through the mostly destroyed roof, as if continuing to speak to the Father, ‘They know not what they do.’” 

That moment is now frozen in glass in an art exhibit called “Remembered Light: Glass Fragments from World War II, The McDonald Windows” on display in San Francisco’s Veterans Building through Dec. 23.

The show includes 25 glass works by 13 different artists built around the shards McDonald, an Episcopal priest, collected from the destroyed churches, synagogues and chapels he visited in England, France, Holland, Belgium and Germany in 1944 and 1945.

The works belong to the Interfaith Center at the Presidio, the former military post that is now a national park nestled at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. The exhibit has been on a national tour while the center is remodeled — including a proposed permanent gallery for the windows — so this San Francisco show is a kind of homecoming.

In honor of Veterans Day, Laura Lisy-Wagner, a history professor at San Francisco State University, gave a talk and slideshow presentation about the works, followed by a walk-through of the exhibit.

“I found the windows really moving,” Lisy-Wagner told about 20 people at the San Francisco Public Library’s main branch, just a two-block walk to the exhibit. “There is a certain sense that something important is being restored.”

Born in Seattle in 1908, McDonald attended New York’s General Theological Seminary before serving churches in Washington, Oregon and Rhode Island. As a young seminarian in 1933, he traveled to Germany just four months after Adolf Hitler became chancellor. He saw a Hitler Youth parade in the streets and was impressed, even buying a small swastika flag as a souvenir.

Back in the states, McDonald encountered Jewish and German refugees while serving a church in Providence, Rhode Island. Their stories made him an early proponent of the United States’ entry into the war.

U.S. Army Chaplain Frederick A. McDonald collected shards of glass from ruined churches and synagogues during his tour of duty in Europe during World War II. Those shards are now the centerpieces of an art glass exhibit called “Remembered Light”.

“Two years later I was to change my mind to opposition to Nazism as its inherent demonism became clear,” he said later in a short documentary that accompanies the exhibit.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, McDonald was one of about 9,000 pastors who enlisted as chaplains. He arrived in Liverpool, England, in August 1944 — two months after the D-Day invasion of Normandy. As part of the 12th Army Groug, he was stationed in Verdun, France. Through the next 18 months, he visited as many wrecked places of worship as he could.

From each site, he gathered glass as well as memories. These include 11 yellow shards retrieved from a sanctuary in Maastricht, Holland, now embedded as gravestones in a glass landscape of a military cemetery; three bluish shards collected separately from a synagogue, a Protestant church and a Catholic cathedral in Verdun now posing as musical notes in a measure of music; and 43 multi-colored bits taken from the Liebfrauenkirche — or “Church of Our Lady” — in Trier.

That piece was created by Peter Eichorn, a Kentucky-based glass artist who was born in Trier. “It is my hope that this artwork will help us see more clearly what people went through during the war,” Eichorn said of the work. “With understanding and respect for each other, change continues to be possible.” 

All 25 pieces have McDonald’s recollections of the various houses of worship worked into them in some way. In one made from glass recovered in Achen, Germany, the shards become a refugee’s suitcases under an inscription that reads, in part, “Down by the Cathedral, I saw an aged woman lugging two suitcases as she crawled over stone pilings. Where was she going with her pitiful burden?” 

“Remembered Light” was conceived by McDonald and glass artist Armelle Le Roux, whom he met in 1999. McDonald had creative input to about half the works before he died in 2002. Le Roux, who was born in France but now has a studio in nearby Oakland, created or collaborated on half of the 25 works and oversaw the rest.

In her talk, professor Lisy-Wagner showed slides of her favorite pieces from “Remembered Light.” Among them was a piece of Le Roux’s that combines two tiny shards — one yellow and one red — inside a rusted metallic triangle that resembles a rocket or the head of a bayonet. Behind the shards is a mirror — look at the shards, and the viewer’s image is reflected back through them.

“I found this one really moving,” Lisy-Wagner said. “It really puts you in the scene. It says this could be you” experiencing the war.

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today and more. This article was originally published at Religion Unplugged.

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