A close look at the stained-glass windows of St. Peter’s Episcopal Cathedral in Helena reveals some of the usual iconography of a well-appointed church — images of saints and biblical characters, of religious practices and plenty of decorative shapes and swirls.
But an even closer look offers a history of Montana, America and the church itself. The seven main windows in the sanctuary, along with several others, reflect the vision of many of the church’s early parishioners, including some prominent Helena families.
“I’ve been coming here for 26 years and I don’t know how many times I’ve walked right by it,” Deborah Swingley said, referring to a children’s window featuring baby animals including rabbits and a lamb.
To keep others from missing the beauty and history before their eyes, Deborah and her husband, Ken, have produced a book, “The Windows of St. Peter’s Cathedral.” It features photographs by Ken — usually a wildlife photographer — and text by Deborah that digs deep into the details of the panes, constructed in the 1930s and 1940s.
The windows show Montana flora and fauna, allusions to Montana landmarks and some surprises.
It starts with the pioneers, in a window depicting Bishop Daniel Sylvester Tuttle, founder of the Episcopal Church in Montana. It includes an image of a covered wagon and a pioneer family around a campfire, with the inscription from the book of Isaiah that speaks to that experience: “The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them, and the desert shall rejoice for them and blossom as the rose.”
A window with Abraham, clutching a stone to build an altar, was given by the Holter family. It includes images of Montana nature, history and industry — a bison and a bear, a boot and an awl, a pick and shovel, evergreen trees and a mountain peak, and a plow, all with bitterroots along the border and a pair of settlers ministering to a Native American.
It has images of significance to the Holter family, including a Norwegian flag and the staff entwined by serpents that symbolizes the practice of medicine.
Some of the windows show the fashions of the time they windows were built. Look closely at one, and there’s a female wearing bobby socks, which came into style in the 1940s.
Look closely at another and find Masonic imagery.
“The more you sit down and research and learn, the more questions you have,” said Ken Swingley.
The Window of Moses links the Promised Land to America. Moses is holding the Ten Commandments, and the window also depicts the Magna Carta, Noah’s Ark, a dove, an American flag, the Liberty Bell and images of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
Above the back stairs is an image of a woman, one Katherine Sinclair Sligh. She died young, while engaged to Thomas Marlow, the early Helena banker who developed the landmark theater of that name.
That’s the only window that came from the original Episcopal Church in Helena, located across Last Chance Gulch at the corner of Grand and Warren streets. The inscription in that window reads, “My hope is everlasting.”
A window contributed by women parishioners of the 1940s shows Mary, along with symbols representing women of the Bible, plus various symbols of the home and motherhood — a soup bowl with a ladle, loaves of bread and the basket that carried Moses to safety.
Ken Swingley took the photos using only natural light. That was tricky in some cases, because one side of the church is sometimes shadowed by trees. In some cases, he had to climb high on a ladder, giving him unique view of all the windows.
The appearance of the windows is ever-changing with the variations in outside light. Sometimes, he said, the bright sunlight through the cut glass gives a three-dimensional appearance.
The craftsman who made most of the windows, Charles J. Connick of Boston, saw his handiwork as integral to the religious mission.
“If churches are made radiant and beautiful places of worship, we can have a spiritual regeneration without anyone knowing what is going on,” he wrote, and the Swingleys repeat on the first page of the book. “Beauty can preach as very few men with bundles of words can preach. I want to make beautiful interiors for both churches and souls. I want men to hear my windows singing.”
The Rev. Heidi Kinner has been dean of the church for about a year, and said she learned about the windows early on, when she first toured the structure during interviews for the position.
“It’s just such a wonderful thing to have,” she said.
The Swingleys are not the first to examine the stained glass closely. Parishioners have produced printed materials through the years, and a former dean, the Rev. Ray Brown, has led tours and provided the Swingleys with plenty of information.
Much of the learning came informally through the church’s various gatherings.
“A conversation will just come up, and this whole amazing amount of information is shared,” Deborah Swingley said.
But none of the previous publications included the extensive photography of the Swingleys’ effort, and they decided a high-quality, coffee table book would be appropriate.
The first run of books sold out, and the Swingleys had another batch printed — in two different sizes for different tastes.
Any proceeds from the books beyond the costs of publishing are going back into the church to help repair tiles on its roof, which dates to the structures origin in the early 1930s.