On a bright Sunday morning when the sun hits the stained glass in the Basilica of St. Josaphat, the scene of women bringing their children to meet Jesus seems to glow from within.
The stained glass in many archdiocesan churches is created and restored by New Berlin-based Conrad Schmitt Studios, Inc. The company has worked to conserve stained glass and murals, as well as paint churches like the Basilica, the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Holy Hill, Gesu Parish and many other parishes around the archdiocese.
“Over the years, we have developed relationships with our church leaders in the area,” said Heidi Emery, the vice president and art director at Conrad Schmitt.
When worship is not taking place, the parishes hand over their spaces to Conrad Schmitt so they can work their magic. But what exactly can they do and how do they do it?
The majority of the firm’s local projects include either conserving or creating stained glass. At Gesu Parish, Conrad Schmitt is using a conservative approach to retain as much of the original glass as possible. Conservation epoxy is used to mend broken pieces, but lead that has stretched and deteriorated must be replaced.
At St. Stanislaus Parish, the company has worked to replicate the stained glass from historic photographs and recovered glass fragments. The windows will be installed in phases as funding becomes available.
At St. Peter in Slinger and St. Teresa of Calcutta in North Lake, the Studio is creating new stained-glass designs to enhance their worship spaces.
Decorative painting is another service the company offers to parishes, said Emery. After determining the surfaces are secure, base paint is applied, followed by any number of decorative paint techniques such as stenciling, glazing or gilding to enrich the beauty
of the interior.
In the Bascilica, for example, Conrad Schmitt used the technique called trompe-l’oeil, which translated means to “deceive the eye” by using highlights and shadows to make a flat surface appear three dimensional. Much of the decoration in the sanctuary uses this technique to imitate decorative picture frames, said Emery.
The columns of the Basilica were painted to resemble marble, using many layers of paint and veining to create a realistic appearance.
“When well done, it is difficult to tell if the columns are real or faux stone,” Emery said.
Sometimes parishes come to Conrad Schmitt with rough ideas of what they want, but depend on the experts to make their ideas a reality. For example, at Holy Hill National Shrine of Mary, Help of Christians in Hubertus, the lower chapel is dedicated to St. Therese, the Little Flower. The church wished to tell the story of the life of St. Therese. The artists and designers at Conrad Schmitt took the ideas and made several sketches, then made revisions based on feedback from the church.
“Renderings are an important part of the process and communicate vision,” said Emery. “They help generate enthusiasm and financial support for the project.”
While Conrad Schmitt does primarily stained glass and decorative painting, it doesn’t stop there. The company produced a portrait of Cardinal Harvey for St. Francis de Sales Seminary. Emery said it was a unique project that the company did for the seminary, and one she’ll never forget. “When we met Cardinal Harvey for the photo shoot, he was just a very down-to-earth, genuine person,” she said.
Conrad Schmitt Studios was founded in 1889, when Conrad Schmitt Jr. assembled artists from Europe and the United States to decorate and restore historic churches, as well as conserve and restore stained glass across the country. Emery’s grandfather, Bernard O. Gruenke, started working for the company in 1936, purchasing the business from the Schmitt family in 1952. Now Emery and her brother, Gunar Gruenke, primarily run the business, along with a team of artists, designers, decorators and craftsmen. Since its founding, Conrad Schmitt Studios has completed thousands of major projects throughout the United States.
Emery recommends that parishes inspect their worship spaces often, be proactive with maintenance and plan ahead for the future. A structure should be painted, restored and decorated every 30 to 40 years.
“Our churches and historic buildings are a labor of love,” she said. “People who love them know that. It’s a unique set of challenges to maintain and decorate these places of worship and the treasures that are housed within them. In doing so, we honor parishioners from the past who built them, and we become faithful stewards to ensure their longevity for our future generations.”