The 1960’s were a time of much change in the Catholic Church. It was a time of much change in a lot of places, we felt. Born in 1964, I remember the niceties of the warm, glowing embers of the bonfire, but had little awareness of its earlier rage… but that’s not the story I had set out to write…

A church was built that architecturally emulated much of the change that was occurring in the year 1963. In Biloxi, Mississippi, the church was practically on the beach, alone at first, looking quite the part of a sunny vacation setting. It was in the round – altar near the middle of the congregation, with 36 columns of stained glass that started near the floor, then soared all the way to the ceiling, very far from the ground. The perimeter of the building seemed almost as much stained glass as anything else. My father had built them, new to being the leader of the company, along with his best design artist, and friend, Frances Deck. Depicting fishermen, fish and their nets, the windows were made with more clarity than most. People could see through them, to a large degree, bringing the outside in. It became known as the ‘Fisherman’s Church.’ It was a big, big job.

Nothing is ever completely ideal. Risks have costs, though often poorly comprehended. Hurricanes happen. They are going to land somewhere.

This is one of the photographs my father took  in 1969 during his visit to Biloxi, assessing what hurricane Camille had just done to his reasonably new windows. The answer was, the storm surge and waves had swamped the church and completely destroyed the bottom third of the windows, washed all of the pews and furniture out the back side of the church. Ocean liners had floated up nearby, luckily not hitting it. The upper two-thirds of the stained glass, and everything else in the church above the waves, were fine, however.

‘Hurricanes are rare’, so it was rebuilt. In the year 2000, we added one half inch thick, clear, tempered glass over all of them.

In 2005, Katrina showed us that hurricanes, perhaps, are not so rare. The devastation was at least as bad, if not worse, only this time, due to gambling laws written in books, the ocean liners were replaced by giant, floating casinos, many of them… Like the big ships, thirty six years before, these monstrosities also ended up beached in the middle of town. They had to be dismantled. Luckily they too, missed the church. This time, it was my brother, and later, I who surveyed the damage.

“Our” church, St. Michael’s, is the round building in the middle. The ugly monstrosity in bottom left is a casino that floated up to the church, coming from behind the camera, Katrina, 2005

It sat for a while. Stained glass windows are expensive, especially in this quantity. The church hierarchy looked at the ocean and said, ‘We’ve gotta stop meeting like this’. They were not going to keep paying for these windows over and over again, and that was where their decision was heading. Everyone felt that this place was special, nobody liked the idea of tearing it down, but the prospect of repeated outlays of this kind of money was a tough reality. We don’t like the idea of losing our ancestors’ work, either. There must be some solution.

Brainstorming is one of my favorite things to do. The good thing is that I can come up with a lot of unusual ideas. The bad thing is that most of them are quite less than ideal. The more unusual the problem, the more I’m your man. The nastier the conditions of a race, the higher the likelihood that I might win. The more standard the job or competition, the more substandard my performance. I’m not sure what sparked the idea, but they liked it. They were listening. In hindsight, it was pretty simple – before a storm, find a way to quickly get the windows to safety.

The Network News Story

At first I planned to use garage door springs, as there was no place to hide counterbalance weights, and it was going to take an awful lot of weights, but we were pushing these springs beyond their limits. The more I looked, the more unsuitable they became. Finally, laying in bed, I realized, ‘don’t hide them, make them flat, spanning the full width of the opening and tucked up tight against the ceiling. In this way, they could become nice looking architectural details, just with a purpose.

The well seasoned job site foreman matched every stereotype one could imagine for a well seasoned foreman in Mississippi. He saw no need to ‘spiffy up’ for the meeting with the architect and big wigs, detailing the progress and problems thus far. A wee bit of worry for me was that I was needing to remove more of the large plates of one inch thick tempered plate glass than I had expected. What was worse, they were installed in such a way that I was having to break them, in order to remove them. Quite thick and four times stronger than ordinary glass, I really had to get after it. As I explained to the brass, “I am carefully removing the plates”, the forman bent over laughing, while saying, “It looked like you were whacking the shit out of them to me!”  ‘Moving to the next topic, don’t try to be high falutin’, I thought.

Slow learning curve: On the first column, as I’m on the man lift, half way up, I am intensely looking down at the first movable section, as I guide it up into the track, then bam! The descending counter-weight hits me on the back of the head. On the second column… Bam!… On the third column…  I believe it might have been column number twenty, when I finally said, “Oh no you don’t, I’m on to you.”

* Two of our people installing stained-glass windows in the video, are Jeff Govro, and Buddy Pondrom.

St. Michael’s, Biloxi, Mississippi – after Katerina, 2005

Below is an excerpt from a long ago post of mine:

Cat in the hat Fish 2

During our tour of duty, we stayed at a very interesting independent hotel owned and run by a middle-aged lady named Bridget. She had recently been an engineer up north who had decided to get out of the rat race.  Her dream was to buy and run a hotel.  So, seize the moment, she did.

There were a couple of people that she let stay at the hotel long term free of charge with the caveat that they help out.  They were the nicest people and seemed to be good friends of hers, but I don’t think that I ever caught one of them actually doing any useful work.  Things were all haphazard and half done, but as a not very picky costumer, it was layed back and easy.

Just to make conversation one Saturday, I asked her where one of the “workers”, Joe was.  She told me that he was fishing off the dock out back, so Buddy Pondrom and I decided to pay Joe a visit.

There he was, sitting back in a chair, completely motionless.  He was always motionless.   Somehow he just magically got from one place to another when I wasn’t looking.  He had his bare feet up on the railing with fishing poles between his toes, one on each foot.   I think that he was a good fisherman.  I never was a good fisherman.  If fishing had consisted of running and chasing them down, then perhaps I would have been a good fisherman.  But it doesn’t, and that is why Joe is a good fisherman.

Buddy, trying to make conversation and fit in, asked “so, do you like to fish?”  Joe answers, and for full effect, you must read the following quote painfully slowly.  “It’s a good way to pass the time.”   Just then something in a plastic five gallon bucket next to him grunts very loudly.

Now I didn’t know that fish in Mississippi grunted, but apparently, they do, and loudly.  Buddy, trying to keep the lively conversation going asks “I wonder what it is saying?”  Joe, in the same slow drawl and not showing the slightest emotion says, “Probably get me the fuck out of this bucket”.

Now Buddy and I are trying to choke back the laughter while Joe keeps on looking ahead completely deadpan.  I suppose that he must have been thinking “what’s wrong with these people, I only answered their question.”