A stained-glass renaissance

Sun rays hit the century-old windows at Richmond Hill and brightly colored stained glass sparkles.Until recently, no one had enjoyed that beauty at the historic Church Hill monastery for nearly three decades.

A false ceiling that covered a maze of heating and air-conditioning ducts had hid the windows since 1975.Three weeks ago, the ceiling and ductwork were removed to reveal eight striking windows and a 35-foot barrel-vaulted ceiling.

The windows are in Richmond Hill's 1894 Romanesque-style chapel, which is being renovated as part of a $7 million facelift that began last year.

Richmond Hill is an ecumenical Christian community and retreat center at 2209 E. Grace St. Those who live there pray for metropolitan Richmond three times a day.

The windows, which show crosses, a birdbath and a book with a chalice and rosary, are located on upper chapel walls that front Grace and 22nd streets. The chapel also has stained-glass windows that were not covered by the false ceiling.

"We knew the windows were up there, we just hadn't seen them," said Mimi Weaver, Richmond Hill's director of development.

The drop ceiling was added in 1975 when heating and air conditioning was installed in the chapel, said Page Harmon, a volunteer at the monastery. Richmond Hill purchased the buildings in 1987 from the Sisters of the Visitation of Monte Maria, who moved to a new facility in Rockville in Hanover County.

Weaver wants to find out about the people to whom the windows are dedicated. She hopes there might be family members in the area who will contact her.

Four windows have names and death dates: Delia J. Higgins, March 15, 1892; Florence A. Higgins, Oct. 7, 1894; Mrs. John M. Higgins, Aug. 22, 1892; and John Purcell, June 29, 1894. Four have only names: Eliza Ryan McCrane, Martin M. Mahoney, Bridget M. Mahoney and Harriet Roberts.

The stained-glass windows apparently were installed in the chapel when it was built in 1894.

On dedication day, "The stained glass windows filled the chapel and sisters' choir with vibrant color," Mother Mary Gertrude wrote in "Sentinel on the Hill," which was published in 1966 when the monastery celebrated its 100th anniversary. She also wrote that the chapel was made possible by a $5,000 gift from a Mrs. Thomas Ryan.

Weaver said she doesn't think the windows will need to be restored, just cleaned. The metal screens that protect the outside of the windows might be removed, she added. She isn't sure if synthetic covers will be added.

The overall renovation project includes updating the plumbing, heating and electrical systems and adding air conditioning for the entire monastery. A new lobby and administration area with a cloister connecting the center's three existing buildings are under construction. Renovation of the center's dormitory area has been completed.

Although more than $5 million has been raised toward the $7 million goal, $1.9 million is needed to complete the renovation, Weaver said. If that amount isn't raised by the end of the year, the 1811 Adams-Taylor house, which is part of the Richmond Hill complex, cannot be restored, she added. An additional $1 million is needed for maintenance.

"We feel like Richmond Hill is such a gift to the city," Weaver said. "People don't realize we are here for the public, but we really are."

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