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124-year-old stained glass company teams up with artist Cbabi Bayoc

Artist Cbabi Bayoc's take on a Resurrection stained glass window for the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in University City. It was his first time working with stained glass.
Kayla Drake
St. Louis Public Radio
Artist Cbabi Bayoc's take on a Resurrection stained glass window for the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in University City. It was his first time working with stained glass.

A University City church is changing how Biblical figures are represented in stained glass.

Mike Angell, pastor of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion, felt there were too many images of white Jesus in his church for a congregation that is 40% Black.

The church integrated in the 1960s. “But we have not integrated the art,” Angell said. “It becomes very important that people see themselves in the sacred story. They see themselves in the biblical story. They see themselves represented in their church.”

To that end, Holy Communion leaders enlisted the help of 124-year-old stained glass company Emil Frei and Associates. The St. Louis company has created art for more than 7,000 churches around the globe, including St. Francis Xavier College Church in Grand Center and St. Francis de Sales off Gravois Road. It also helped design the mosaic patterns for the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis.

Aaron Frei and Cbabi Bayoc talk about their new collaboration on "St. Louis on the Air"

“St. Louis boasts a wealth of churches that is the envy of any other city in the United States in terms of per capita and quality,” said Aaron Frei, the company’s president and a fifth-generation Frei.

Before signing a contract, Angell had a request for the company: He wanted painter and muralist Cbabi Bayoc to design the window. At first, Frei was hesitant because Bayoc had never worked with stained glass before.

“Aaron has to put up with a lot of churches that are like, ‘Don't you want my uncle to work on this piece of stained glass?'" Angell said. “And he's like, ‘No, it’s a really complicated media.’”

Explained Frei: “There are all these little nuances that are best learned through the process of making a window. A lot of artists spend four or five years before they even designed the first window.”

For Bayoc, the process was different. Said Angell: “The first time I heard back from Aaron after Cbabi was in studio, he's like, ‘Oh no, this guy knows what he's doing. He took it up right away. It's gonna be fun.’ So it was fun to play matchmaker a little bit.”

“And it was fun to be wrong,” Frei added.

Five years in the making, the collaboration was the first time the company worked with a Black artist.

Growing up, Bayoc explained on Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, he rarely saw Jesus depicted as Black. “Only on 'Good Times,'" he quipped.

In Bayoc’s window, Jesus has an afro that forms a halo around his head. His palms are extended outward. Mary Magdalene has long, sweeping braids that melt into a river of living water. Her fist is raised. Bayoc said he decided to position them like that because he wanted to pay tribute to the Black Lives Matter movement.

“So many mothers have lost their sons,” Bayoc said.

The piece, installed last week, is the first of what the congregation hopes will be four windows in all, outlining the biblical road to salvation. Angell said this installment symbolizes the resurrection of Jesus. He sees Mary Magdalene’s raised fist as a posture of hopefulness and power.

“We loved this idea that Mary would be the last figure you see, on her way out with her fist in the air — the revolution continues, the work continues,” Angell said.

Angell said the windows are also meant to stand in defiance of recent efforts to whitewash history. He quoted something he was told by the church’s lead layperson, Rudy Nickens.

“In a small way, in a small local church, we can put together something that he called ‘a loving, beautiful contradiction’ to what can feel like hard days for folks who care about diversity and equity,” Angell said.

Bayoc managed to employ timeless painting, glazing and soldering techniques to create a fresh take on sacred art. It’s a take that Frei said he hopes will inspire conversations between people and God.

“I've not seen [Mary Magdalene] depicted like this before, and I have worked in thousands of churches,” Frei said.

Holy Communion now hopes to raise more than $50,000 so Bayoc can finish the story.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Kayla is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.
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