As kids growing up in southern Wisconsin, any time we ventured into the back room of our basement we were likely to hear a voice from upstairs shout, “Don’t you go near those windows!” Of course we knew what that meant: the antique stained-glass behemoths covered in blankets in the farthest reaches of the basement, next to the furnace. I never gave a great deal of thought to them, until one day in 2006 when my father was dying of cancer.
I fully tell the story of the stained-glass chapel windows in my book, The Journey Home: My Father’s Story of Cancer, Faith and Life-Changing Miracles. It’s worth covering here, too. It shows how sometimes, things all come together to create something beautiful, even out of sadness.
Founded in 1912, St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison always had a chapel. In 1926, a new, ornate chapel was built as part of an expansion of St. Mary’s. The chapel had 10 window frames, each with two beautiful arched stained-glass windows that rose 20 feet from eye level to midway up the wall. In between each were two Stations of the Cross. The windows remained part of the chapel until 1973, when that section of the building was razed to make way for a new hospital wing on Mills Street. Dad obtained two of the windows, a total of four panels, carrying them home in blankets to rest for more than three decades.
When Dad was being treated for lung cancer at St. Mary’s in the fall of 2006, he got an inspiration to give those windows back to St. Mary’s. He asked for my help in doing some research, but he was so impatient he wheeled himself down to the administrative offices to talk to someone about it. That someone, vice president Barbara K. Miller, was enthralled with the idea, but it was her last day on the job before retiring. She promised to get the ball rolling on the donation. “I want these windows to come home to St. Mary’s,” he told her.
Dad was a little worried that his donation wouldn’t get done. The idea occupied his mind more than anything else in November 2006. He knew his time with us was short. He told the story and his idea to his physician, Dr. Gregory Motl. Dad made Dr. Motl promise that if he didn’t survive the cancer, the donation would be completed. Motl grasped Dad’s hand and said reassuringly, “I will Dave. I will.”
To say the hospital embraced Dad’s idea would be an understatement. His timing was perfect, since St. Mary’s was planning a $182 million expansion that would add a new east wing with operating rooms, a cardiac center, outpatient offices, patient rooms and more. St. Mary’s was looking for ways to tie the new facility to the hospital’s heritage. The architects designed special spaces for each of the four window sections. St. Mary’s had a new internal champion for the windows, Steve Sparks, public relations director.
After months of planning, St. Mary’s was finally ready to take possession of the windows. On March 22, 2007, Sparks and workmen came to Sun Prairie to transport the windows. He snapped some photos of Mom and Dad with a window section. Dad looked pale and drawn, but I know he appreciated the milestone that day represented. “It was humbling for me,” Sparks recounted later. “This gift demonstrated exceptional courage and generosity. It is an experience I won’t forget.”
Tears were shed that afternoon as the windows were lovingly carried outside. It was the first daylight to penetrate the stained glass in more than three decades. For Dad, it was the accomplishment of a mission of giving. His part was finished; now St. Mary’s would take over. Not two weeks later, Dad was admitted to St. Mary’s and then discharged to HospiceCare Inc. (now called Agrace), where he died on April 14, 2007.
In early December 2007, Mom and I were invited to the dedication day at the new St. Mary’s east wing. We attended a luncheon and heard very kind words about Dad from Dr. Frank Byrne, then president of St. Mary’s Hospital. They were similar to what Dr. Byrne wrote right after Dad’s death. “It is clear from Dave’s accomplishments that dedication to community was always a part of his priorities,” Byrne wrote, “and we will all benefit from that dedication for years to come. At this sad time, we hope it will be a reminder that though life may seem short, the contributions made by one individual have a significant impact in building a future for us all.”
When we walked into the atrium and first saw one of the window sections, it was enough to bring tears. There it was, set into the wall and brilliantly backlit in a way that brought out the green, red and amber hues of the glass. It was, as designed by the architects, a welcoming beacon for everyone visiting St. Mary’s. Mom posed next to the window, and even did an impromptu interview with Madison’s Catholic newspaper, The Catholic Herald. The three other window sections were placed on different floors of the east wing. One is in a waiting room. The others are in prominent spots.
The story of these chapel windows gives testimony that beauty can emerge from the depths of the darkest tragedies. Dad kept the windows safe for 35 years, and he got them safely home to St. Mary’s just weeks before he, too, made it home.
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