PALMYRA – Ken Hubel says that April 19, 2007, was the day he felt his heart leave his body.
It was the day that his beloved church – St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Palmyra – burned to the ground at sunset.
Hubel and his family had been members of the church even before it was a church. More than 45 years ago, congregants first met in a funeral parlor. Then they gathered above a movie theater. The congregation eventually bought the former Union Church on a hill on Route 2 for $1 and the Grange Hall next door for another dollar.
But a church is its people, Hubel said, not a building. The morning after the fire, while the embers still smoldered, a small group of parishioners met alongside the devastated church and held a service.
It was a gratitude service, a thank-you to all the firefighters who had worked so hard at the fire and had managed to save some treasured items from the blaze.
“We were so fortunate,” Hubel said, “that three of the firefighters were church members and they knew what pieces to save.”
Among those treasures were seven stained-glass windows that Hubel had created for the church.
Glass is made through fire – and somehow it seemed fitting to Hubel that as the congregation’s plans to rebuild the church moved forward, he turned to glass to celebrate.
So down in his basement, Hubel has been working for months – sometimes up to 10 hours a day – on a series of 18 windows for the new building.
Bent over a crowded workbench, Hubel cuts each piece of jewel-colored glass according to his pattern, carefully grinds each edge, puts it in place and secures it with solder.
Each pattern has been created from church windows all across the country. Some of the patterns are simple – doves, chalices, crosses – while others are much more intricate, including two 76-inch-tall door panels of winter in Maine. There are windows full of Easter lilies, the Tree of Life, the Madonna and child, and one of the Anglican flag, blue with a compass rose.
“This is a labor of love,” Hubel said.
Although Hubel works on the windows each day, he has some extra help on Thursdays. A retired industrial arts teacher, Hubel is teaching his craft to several fellow parishioners. Ginger Phelps, Jackie Williams, Debbie McKenzie and Marguerite Lindsay have been learning the art of stained glass from Hubel while working on the largest window.
It is 42 inches square and will be placed over St. Martin’s altar. It depicts a rising Jesus, arms outstretched, with hills and a village below.
Sometimes when he is working, Hubel’s thoughts drift to the fire and the strength he has seen in his fellow parishioners. They began the recovery by holding weekly services in the Grange Hall. When the building was sold, to make room for an enlarged parking lot alongside the new church construction, they moved to the Newport Grange Hall.
“We call ourselves the church on the move or the church of the Grange,” Hubel joked. Sometimes, he said, while working on the windows, he pauses to reflect about where the church is going, what it will look like.
The church will be much more modern in appearance and sit towards the back of the same lot where the church that burned was located.
“We don’t really look back anymore,” Hubel said. “We look forward.”
Hubel said that as construction on the new church progresses, several of the windows have been installed already, and they all should be in place in time for the church’s consecration, next April 19, on the third anniversary of the fire.