The art of faith shines like the sun at St. Thomas More


Staff writer


Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) said, “The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.”

How brilliantly those words are expressed at St. Thomas More, Allentown, where looking at the light shimmer through the stained-glass windows is uplifting and inspiring, with such images as Christ, the giver of life, the sun, rising behind the altar in gentle rays of yellow sunlight through the blue mists of morning.

Talk about the art of faith.

The exquisite stained-glass windows and art at St. Thomas More, Allentown – which this year celebrates its milestone golden anniversary – have quite a story behind them involving two famous artists.

Msgr. Robert Coll – pastor emeritus of Assumption BVM, Bethlehem and retired to Naples, Florida – was pastor of the parish to be built on Flexer Avenue. He remembered visiting a church adorned with the work of French artist Gabriel Loire and was impressed. So he called Loire, who took on the task of creating 4,500 square feet of sculptured glass windows.

Msgr. Coll also founded Operation Rice Bowl, the nationwide Lenten sacrificial program, in 1975 at St. Thomas More.

Msgr. John Murphy succeeded Msgr. Coll as pastor in 1980, and celebrates his 36th year as pastor this year. Bishop Joseph McShea, founding bishop of Allentown, formally dedicated St. Thomas More on Oct. 17, 1971.

“The people wanted to make the church an inspiration to the whole community,” said Msgr. Coll.

Loire (1904-96) worked directly with famed artist Marc Chagall (1887-1985), and that connection can be seen in the stained glass. The figures in Loire’s are mostly in impressionistic style. Chagall, a Russian-French artist, was an early modernist associated with several major artistic styles and created works in virtually every artistic medium, including painting, book illustrations, stained glass, stage sets, ceramic, tapestries and fine art prints.

According to a description provided by Bernardine Sister Cynthia Skiendziel, who works in parish ministry at St. Thomas More, “Gabriel Loire was a world-renowned French artist of the 20th century whose extensive works, portraying various persons, historic scenes, and church windows appear in many venues around the world and in the United States.

“Loire was a leader in the modern use of ‘slab glass,’ which is five times thicker and stronger than the antique stained glass technique of the Middle Ages. Loire often expressed the view ‘Peace and Joy,’ and he particularly liked working with shades of blue, which he said represented to him the color of peace.

“He found in this assignment, the freedom to capture the hopes, loves and fears of a man’s 24 hours in a day. When finally installed, they depicted a breathtaking, multicolored scene of dawn to dusk in a forest.

“The windows create a circular forest glade in early light. The sun has just risen. The trees are massive clutching shapes and the light explodes into mystical blues, warm yellows, earthy reds, the greens of the woods. Christ, the giver of life, the sun, rises behind the altar in gentle rays of yellow sunlight through the blue mists of morning.

“As day draws on in what Loire envisioned as a forest glade, the glass grows as dark and foreboding as the temptations that engulf man. It returns gently to warm yellows and earthy reds when man is at last at home, secure in the love of his family. The only deliberate image is the crescent moon by loft steps. He signed the door by the sacristy in 1969.

“The 12 sections of the ceiling represent tribes and apostles. The slabbed glass in the sacristy and Holy Family Chapel/Infant Consolation Room represent Annunciation, Ride to Bethlehem, Nativity, Angels and Shepherds, Presentation, Prophetess Anna, Three Gifts, Flight to Egypt, Jesus with Joseph in the Carpenter Shop, and Finding in the Temple.”

Msgr. Coll recalled when Loire came to St. Thomas More in 1969, “Upon viewing the entire campus he was ecstatic, feeling that he had captured the physical layout of the church as the central expression of the sundial. The sculptured glass was his interpretation of a simple sketch which I had presented to him two years before.”

Msgr. Coll said the famous rose windows of Chartres Cathedral, France were the artist’s “lifetime inspiration … his studio was a short distance from the cathedral.”

Loire founded the Loire Studios in Chartres, which has been directed by his son since Loire’s death.

Chagall, Msgr. Coll said, gave all his works to France, where they are contained at the Maeght Foundation, and a museum in St. Paul de Vence in southern France.

Msgr. Coll said working with fractured glass, Loire “took various shades of blue with light penetrating them in different fashions” to create the windows at St. Thomas More.

It was Msgr. Coll’s idea to construct the church “in an octagonal, somewhat round” fashion, which also allowed viewing the beauty of the windows from all angles inside the church.

“At night we’d light the church then stand outside to see the windows, and you’d see this burst of color. People used to line up to see them, and sometimes the police had to come and direct them because there was such a line of people. It was new and exciting,” Msgr. Coll said.

“I had the idea for a circular driveway design, with two paths coming out of it – one to the church and one to the school – with the statue of St. Thomas More in the middle. It was like a sundial,” Msgr. Coll said.

Speaking of the connection between Loire and Chagall, Msgr. Coll said, “Loire and Chagall would get together and Chagall would do a painting, then Loire would do the painting in stained glass.”

“Msgr. Murphy has done a magnificent job of expanding the whole concept,” Msgr. Coll said. “It’s blossomed.

“From the start, we couldn’t have done it without the will of the people. They were excited and gave their support from day one.”

Msgr. Coll said at the time, usually a church was built, followed by other buildings. But St. Thomas More did it all at once, “which was outlandish at the time.”

“The concept was to do it all at once – the church, convent and school with a gymnasium. The children’s books were in their desks on the first day of school, and we were off and running,” Msgr Coll said, emphasizing, “This was all planned by lay people.”

Msgr. Coll said The Morning Call (then the Call-Chronicle) newspaper “was very interested in our parish and supported everything we did. We were the new kid on the block and always reached out to the community.”

Msgr. Coll said The Morning Call “did a fascinating series of pictures on Mother Teresa’s hands during her visit [to St. Thomas More] in 1976.” He still has those photos.