This Glorious Stained Glass from Ireland Graces Only One American Church
St. Patrick’s Day brings many treasures — including stained-glass windows found in only one church in the United States.
Just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, something better than a pot of gold sits at the end of the rainbow. It’s a church with the only stained glass church windows in the United States designed by Ireland’s most renowned stained glass artist and maker, Harry Clarke.
These 40 windows decorate St. Vincent de Paul Church in Bayonne, New Jersey, next to Upper New York Bay and the Hudson, not far from New York City. Five years before St. Vincent de Paul became a parish, Harry Clarke was born 3,185 miles away in Dublin, Ireland, on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1889.
Not only did Clarke study art, but he worked at J. Clarke and Sons, his father’s business, which was dedicated to decorating churches. When he was only 22, Clarke won the first of his gold medals for his stained glass window that pictured St. Patrick consecrating St. Mel as bishop. Soon his unique style, known for its colors and designs, was found around Ireland and England and later in Australia, too. Then St. Vincent de Paul, originally built for Irish immigrants, became the only church in America with this distinguished artist’s work.
“As a child I loved the windows,” says lifelong St. Vincent de Paul parishioner Peter Keenen O’Brien. Even then he noticed after going to other churches that these were “a unique style I didn’t see anywhere else.” He has been photographing the windows over the years.
Back in the 1920s, Father Joseph Dolan, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul’s, also admired the unique style and color of Clarke’s work when he saw the artist’s works during several trips to Ireland. When Father Dolan was building a new granite Lombardy Romanesque church in 1927 to replace the parish’s old edifice, there was no question he wanted Clarke to design and make the windows. He already had ecclesiastical architects Maginnis & Walsh of Boston, whose work includes the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., and the bronze doors at St. Patrick's Cathedral, designing the new church. Hesitant at first about this unfamiliar stained glass artist, once Maginnis saw Clarke’s work, he quickly agreed that his windows should grace the new church.
What is it about Harry Clarke’s windows that make them so special?
“The details and the colors,” says parishioner Priscilla Ege. “The colors and depth of the colors impress you most. Harry was very inventive. Before Harry, the Irish people always used English stained glass artists. Then Harry came along. His father was a church decorator, and Harry was brought up with how to decorate a church. He experimented with colors until he discovered all these different blues and reds.” Clarke developed techniques for creating these intense colors.
O’Brien notes that Harry was impressed as a child when he saw at Notre Dame and Chartres in France with the rich jewel tones, the brilliance and depth of color in those windows.
There is more. “Second would be the details,” Ege says. “You can look at one square foot in his church window and find 20 to 30 different details. And all the different colors! They’re like hidden treasures.”
O’Brien points to the vesture of the priests and Our Lady in the windows. “The lace is incredible to see,” he says. Clarke was a fabric designer too.
“And the eyes!” Ege emphasizes. “His eyes are so expressive. When you look at them in the window series they’re looking back. And every face in a Harry Clarke window has a different expression and look and a different set of eyes looking at you.”
O’Brien also focuses on the faces. “When you look at the images of the priests and others, it’s like photorealism — more like a photo than a painting.”
O’Brien and Ege are well-versed about all the windows. They co-wrote Harry Clarke Stained Glass Windows to bring the story of the windows and pictures of all 40 of them to the many visitors coming to the church.
History of the Church
Speaking about the faces brings another particularly unique aspect — connecting the windows to the history of the church. O’Brien points out, “All of the priests and bishops in the windows are historic figures from the Newark Archdiocese or the parish.”
And there are several of them because of even more individuality. All the sets of windows in the aisles are called “The Mass in Glass” — or as pastor Father Dolan called it, “The Genius of the Mass.”
Each bishop or priest is celebrating a particular Mass. Among them, Bishop Winand Wigger, third Bishop of Newark, who issued the parish charter to form this parish, is saying the Mass of the Sacred Heart. Archbishop Thomas Walsh, first Archbishop of Newark, who dedicated this church in 1930, is celebrating the Mass of Dedication. Bishop James Roosevelt Bayley, first Bishop of Newark and later Archbishop of Baltimore, is saying the Mass of the Holy Spirit.
Speaking of Baltimore, there is also Bishop John Carroll, first bishop in the United States. Then there is Bishop Bernard McQuaid of Rochester, who began as a missionary in New Jersey. He is giving the nuptial blessing at a Nuptial Mass. Among the priests is Father Joseph Gately, the first rector of St. Vincent de Paul, celebrating the Mass of the Holy Angels.
At the same time, all these windows are paired with equally-sized windows that bring Old Testament figures and biblical events connected to what is being highlighted in each Mass. A sample shows the Marriage of Tobiah and Sarah paired with the 20th-century wedding couple in the Nuptial Mass; the Dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem corresponding with the bishop’s Mass of Dedication; and the Journey to Emmaus paired with the Mass of First Communion.
Even More Surprises
Nine windows in the apse present nine Angels, each holding an item connected to the Mass. Among them is an angel presenting a stole, another with a cross, another holding wine and water, another with a chasuble, another holding a candle, and so on.
Harry Clarke himself wrote this description of them:
Within each of the nine lancet windows of deep glowing colors is an angel bearing a symbol of the Mass. The inventive way in which the background of each window is treated is such that the robe of the angel is complimented by a relevant abstract decorative backdrop whose jagged, whirling and wheeling patterns give the impression of dramatic activity.
It gives a good picture of what he intended and a glimpse into the beginnings of this project.
In fact, O’Brien and Ege have all the correspondence of the “three Irishmen together working on this church,” he says.
Being a historian in the Bayonne Historical Society and member of the historic preservation commission, Ege wanted to see her parish designated as an important landmark. She describes how, with the permission of her pastor, she started looking through old green cabinets in the church’s attic and found not only the original blueprints but all the correspondence between the pastor Father Dolan, the architect Charles McGinnis and Harry Clarke. It was quite a find.
That, coupled with a bit if history on Clarke himself, shed light on his work and this project. “Before he became a stained glass artist, he was the well-known illustrator of the Hans Christian Anderson books and Edgar Allan Poe,” Ege explains. The illustrations he did are quite different — they’re beautiful and flowing for the Anderson books and later non-church window projects, while “for Poe they’re macabre, dark, scary.” Throw those together “and out comes a Harry Clarke window.”
O’Brien reminds that it was “post-famine in Ireland” and thus some of Clarke’s figures have “long and gaunt faces.” But not so the bishops and priests and some others in these windows.
Then there are the clerestory windows. Each pair of windows has lightly-tinted circles with a lunette in their center that carries a symbol of one of the Stations of the Cross right beneath it. Then another style appears as O’Brien points out “the art nouveau an from 1920s in the petal design of the wheel window.” Clarke even pictured himself in profile as one of the souls being prayed for in the Mass of the Holy Souls window.
Change, Yet No Change
The first of the windows began arriving in 1929. While working on the windows, Clarke became ill. He had been sickly. Then in January 1931, only 41 years old, Clarke died. At that time, he had already completed several windows himself, including the nine angel windows.
Yet even after Clarke’s death the project would continue, as he had already planned it in detail, from sketching it out in what are known as “cartoons” to the color schemes. In his studios, his right-hand man, “knew Harry’s style, so he could take the cartoons and complete” the windows, explains O’Brien. As he and Ege write in their booklet:
Margaret Crilley Clarke, an acclaimed portrait artist, continued working from the master plan and followed the designs left by her husband. Her talent as a portrait artist is most evident in the portraits of the bishops and priests in the windows.
And the church was assured that these windows “will be no less beautiful and will be of the same high standard as was demanded previously by the Master Harry Clarke.”
The windows were indeed completed, using Clarke’s full plans and all his techniques, which his workers knew well. The last windows were installed in the church in 1945.
St. Vincent de Paul Church itself, through the efforts of Ege and O’Brien, was added to the New Jersey Register of Historic Places. Then, in 2011, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Over the years, people from around the country and around the world have come to St. Vincent de Paul Church in Bayonne to pray, see, admire and be inspired by the unique work of Ireland’s top stained glass artist who was born on St. Patrick’s Day and is honored internationally.
At the end of their travel “rainbow, they do indeed find treasure from the Emerald Isle — the treasure in this church’s magnificent windows.”
See all the windows in Harry Clarke Stained Glass Windows.