Stained glass has always provided a colorful source of instructional material for Catholics since the Middle Ages. The greatest cathedrals of Europe often boasted “walls” of stained glass, intended to convey the stories of both the Old and New Testaments, especially the life of Christ. During this period, it was not uncommon for most Catholics to lack literacy, so stained glass was the proverbial “I Pad” of the ancient and medieval Catholic Church.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has been fortunate to experience talented individuals in the artistic world that have helped us adorn our Catholic Churches with magnificent examples of the stained glass trade. One particular church, Ascension of Our Lord, has stained glass depictions of the life of Jesus that were executed by Paula Himmelsbach-Balano(1877-1967). Paula Himmelsbach-Balano is often considered the “First-Lady” of Philadelphia stained glass.She was the first female to operate a stained glas studio in the United States that oversaw operations from design to installation. She operated her studio at 22 & Spring Garden Streets until the Great Depression, and then moved to Germantown until her death.
The use of color in the windows at Ascension of Our Lord Church is the most remarkable feature one first experiences when viewing them. The windows are rich, vibrant hues of blues and reds that remarkably change appearance as the sun moves throughout the church at various parts of the day.
Thematically, the most important scriptural events in the life of Jesus Christ are portrayed in these great multicolored, multifaceted panes of glass. The events of the Annunciation, The Visitation, The Birth of Our Lord, and The Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple, The Crucifixion, the Resurrection & the Ascension are the primary themes throughout the church.
The stained glass windows at Ascension of Our Lord Church are superlative examples of art that is used by the Church in order to teach and explain principles of our faith, in addition to being decorative in their nature. The windows tell the story of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension in a manner similar to the Church’s cycles of Gospel readings throughout the liturgical year. They provide a visual feast for the prayerful Catholic as they participate in the Sacred Liturgies and give glory to God through the expression of the hands of a human artist.
Sources of inspiration, meditation and contemplation, stained glass windows in our Catholic Churches reflect the long symbiotic relationship the Catholic Church has had and continues to have with sacred art and artists. Thankfully, the work of Paula Himmelsbach-Balano remains as a visceral and beautifully visible example of how the sacred arts in our Catholic Churches helps us to more deeply worship the Mysteries of God and celebrate the great mysteries of faith God has imparted to us as Catholic believers.
The stained glass at Ascension of Our Lord Church is just one of two remaining sets of her work in place in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The other set is at Saint Agnes Church in West Chester. A pilgrimage to either church or both is worth the trip and the great experience of transcendence stained glass brings us in our Catholic faith.

Hugh J.McNichol is a Catholic author and journalist that muses on Catholic topics and issues. Hugh studied both philosophy and theology at Philadelphia’s Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary. He is currently in an advanced theology degree program at Villanova University in suburban Philadelphia. He writes daily at http://verbumcarofactumest.blogspot.com , http://catholicsacredarts.blogspot.com . Hugh writes on his Irish Catholic parochial experiences at  http://graysferrygrapevine.blogspot.com.
He also contributes writings to The Irish Catholic, Dublin, British Broadcasting Company, and provides Catholic book reviews for multiple Catholic periodicals and publishers, including Vatican Publishing House.
Hugh lives in Delaware’s Brandywine Valley with his wife and daughter.
Hugh welcomes your comments via hugh.mcnichol@verizon.net.

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