How did world-class stained glass windows end up in Leelanau County’s tiny Holy Rosary church? Nobody quite knows how. Discover improbable windows in an improbable place with editor Jeff Smith, originally published in the December 2015 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.

It was the early 1920s, and the people of Holy Rosary, a tiny crossroads parish in rural Leelanau County, ended up with world-class stained glass windows for the new church. Nobody quite knows how.

Father Donald Libby still carries a vivid memory of the first time he experienced the stained glass windows in Holy Rosary church at the rural crossroads of Isadore.

He was a young assistant pastor not much beyond his time of study in Rome and working at Traverse City’s St. Francis. Since he was an assistant, he was, as he says, “sparable,” that is, available when Holy Rosary needed a pastor to perform services on Christmas morning 2007.

Holy Rosary in Cedar, MichiganEarly that day he drove the half-hour to the countryside parish, and as he assumed his place near the altar at about 8:30 a.m., he looked out across the people gathering in the pews and let his gaze wander to the south wall and the windows there. At that moment, he saw the sun shining directly through the window that portrays the scene of Jesus’s birth, making the colors of the nativity window glow in a way he has never forgotten. He remembers something else from that morning, a thought he had: Wouldn’t it be nice to be a pastor here.

Eventually, Father Libby’s wish came true, and now he serves as the full-time pastor at Holy Rosary—an assignment he was given in 2009. His now-daily experience with the stained glass windows has only deepened his appreciation for them. “They are remarkably well done windows,” he says. “But to have them here, in a tiny church kind of in the middle of nowhere, that is the phenomenon.”

Adding to the richness of Holy Rosary’s windows, a small mystery surrounds their origin. The church district was formed in 1883, and by the early 1900s, parishioners wanted to build a new church. Leelanau County of the early 1900s was not a wealthy place, but the Polish potato farmers around Isadore were devoted to their faith. “They really had that mentality that the glory of God comes first. Especially the Poles, they are especially known for really pouring themselves out for God,” Father Libby says.

The specific dates remain unclear, but at some point in the late teens, possibly when World War I still raged, the parish ordered 13 stained glass windows for the new church. Not just any windows would do for the families of Isadore. The parish ordered from a stained glass design company that ranked among the best in the world, the Royal Bavarian Stained Glass Manufactory, founded by Franz Xavier Zettler, of Munich, Germany.

Zettler had begun his design career in 1863 with his father-in-law’s firm, today called Franz Mayer and Company, also of Munich, but seven years later Zettler split to form his own company, continuing in a similar style. What put Zettler and Mayer at the top of the stained glass world is they had departed from the traditional approach of constructing images with small pieces of colored glass and instead painted classic-styled images on glass and fired them in a kiln, fusing the pigment to the glass. The result is richly detailed imagery in classic Gothic painting style that allows for depth perspective and a storied approach to the iconography. Zettler and Mayer became so renowned that this approach became known as the Munich style of stained glass.

Records from the Zettler purchase no longer exist, but Holy Rosary Stained Glass in Leelanauthe church history says the parish ordered windows that cost $1,500 apiece, while other accounts report $650 apiece. Either way, they were the best windows the parish could possibly afford.

Church construction began in the early 1920s as farmers hitched horses to big digging rigs to scoop a hole for the foundation and then positioned big boulders hauled from their fields to build the foundation up. “One of our parishioners who was 98 recently passed away. His name was Joe Brzezinski, and he told me so many times of watching those horses scoop out the hole, making a kind of big bowl where the church would be,” Father Libby says.

The mysterious part of the windows story became evident upon their delivery. Holy Rosary received an unexpected upgrade: windows that should have cost $2,500 apiece, according to the church history. At that higher cost, the value of the 13 windows would equal nearly a half-million dollars today. The church history explained the upgrade by saying the company didn’t have any $1,500 windows, and so sent the better ones, but there’s no further information. In the absence of details, stories have filled the gaps, and speculation still circulates about how this good fortune came to pass.

One story says that during WWI, the church windows were completed for a European church and they were buried for safety, but when the intended church was destroyed in battle, the factory dug them up and shipped them to Isadore after the war. A slightly different story suggests that the windows were possibly removed from a European church and buried to protect them during the war, and then the church was destroyed, and the windows were shipped to Holy Rosary. Yet a third story says the windows were made for Holy Rosary—the upgrade possibly due to an error in ordering—and then buried during the war for protection. People seem to really enjoy the burying part of the story, but when Traverse Magazine wrote to Mayer Company historian Wilfred Jäkel about the burying of windows, he said that is highly unlikely to have occurred. What was common, he said, is windows were packed in crates and stored in basements. The company records do show windows shipped to Cedar in 1923. Regardless of the circumstances, the new church was blessed in December 1923 according to the church history, and the captivating windows were ready to share their stories.

On a sunny October day, when light makes colors in the Holy Rosary glass glow with vividness, Father Libby takes time to give a tour of the windows. As he walks from his office in the adjoining house and up the stairs to the church balcony, he cuts a dramatic figure in his pitch-black ankle-length cassock, lean frame and close-cropped hair. Up in the balcony, he surveys the scene below, taking in the light cast by the windows.

Down in the nave, a colleague is holding mass for just two people who kneel on pews near the pulpit. Father Libby whispers so as to not interrupt.

Holy Rosary Stained Glass in LeelanauFor starters, the painting style of the windows, the classic Gothic approach, really works for Father Libby. “Originally, the whole point of stained glass was to lead you into the next life,” he says. “These are beautiful windows, and beauty is one of the transcendentals—beauty, truth and goodness are things that lead us out of our bodies.” He’s not so much a fan of stained glass in which the imagery is unclear, too conceptual, difficult to decipher, because the message becomes muddled, loses impact.

“Stained glass should teach a lesson,” he says. “There is a theology of stained glass. It tells a story and especially way back in cultures where they couldn’t read, or there was no widespread dissemination of scripture, there was a lesson of Catechism in stained glass windows.” Tour ancient churches of Europe and you can learn all of your theology just by studying the stained glass windows, the father explains. When the Iron Curtain fell, after 70 years without Christianity, devotees took people seeking faith to church and explained lessons of the Bible by using the stories represented in the windows. In Catholic churches, stained glass is so important that during Passion Week of Lent, when churches cover all statues and other icons with fabric, stained glass windows are not to be covered.

Most of Holy Rosary’s windows represent Mysteries of the Rosary, that is, very significant moments in the lives of Jesus and Mary. One window depicts the moment when the angel Gabriel announces that Jesus will be coming. Another window depicts Jesus’s birth, another when he cleansed the waters. The window near the confessional shows Jesus in a temple with a woman at his feet. In addition to a window’s central image, each work of stained glass is loaded with symbolism. “I can easily talk for an hour about all the symbolism in the windows,” Father Libby says.

stained glass in leelanau

As Father Libby has been whispering these thoughts, the people who had been kneeling in the pews finished their service and left, so Father Libby walks down the stairs to explain the windows up close. When he reaches the depiction of the nativity, the window that first caught his attention nearly a decade ago, he pauses for a moment to contemplate it.

He points to a broken stone column in the lower part of the image. “This represents a broken piece of temple,” Father Libby says. The message: we are moving away from the old ways of worship, and now Christ himself is the new temple. Also at the bottom, a pomegranate, cut open to reveal a multitude of seeds. “The pomegranate there symbolizes love, the various seeds being all of the one fruit.” Father Libby uses the windows in his own sermons, pointing to one or another to share its story and its symbolism, weaving the lessons into the topic of the day.

These days, the Holy Rosary windows are showing some wear. Some years ago, a protective plastic transparent window was placed over each window, and an unintended result was heat build-up, which has caused the metal in the windows to weaken and buckle slightly. The church has contracted with a company in Grand Rapids, Michigan—Pristine Glass—to repair the windows and install new protective plastic, which is vented better and should lessen heat build-up, explains Father Libby. A few of the windows have already been repaired, and the rest of the set will be restored over the next few years.

The tour is done, and Father Libby stands near the altar in the quiet of the empty church. “So you can imagine, this is where I was sitting when the light was shining through on Christmas,” he says, pointing to the spot and again looking to the nativity window, where the October sun still shines. “I had no idea I’d one day be assigned here,” he says, smiling at the way things turned out.

Holy Rosary in Cedar, Michigan

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Photo(s) by Todd Zawistowski