Mutual Passion Binds Ancient Art to Aspiring Artist
By Sabina Clarke
Melissa Genovese is a young, talented and passionate stained glass artist with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Rochester Institute of Technology. I met her at Beyer Studio, an architectural stained glass restoration studio/warehouse in Germantown where we discussed her recently completed third commission for Roman Catholic High School, a portrait of the school’s founder Thomas Cahill.
Cahill, born in 1828 in the Schuylkill section of Philadelphia near Grays Ferry and South Street, was a wealthy businessman who made his fortune in coal and ice. He was a Catholic when Catholics were invisible in society and even shunned– particularly, by white Anglo-Saxon Protestant society, during the 1840’s when the city was anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic and anti-Irish.
Courses at Central High School in Cahill’s day compared favorably with the college of the then tiny University of Pennsylvania” For Cahill and other children of Irish immigrants, education was restricted and as there was no formal schooling, children grew up illiterate; simply completing grammar school was an accomplishment with high school reserved for the best and brightest.
High schools were considered ‘higher education’. This disparity in opportunities for the children of Irish immigrants is what fueled Cahill’s dream of building a free Catholic high school for boys. Yet, it was not until after his death in 1878, that his secret dream was revealed when his wife Sophia established a trust fund that oversaw the building of Roman Catholic High School—the first free Catholic high school for boys from working class families in the United States. It soon became a template for other Catholic diocesan schools.
In her depiction of Cahill’s life, Genovese relies on story and portrays images from his personal and professional life. Illustrations of coal on a railroad car and an ice wagon convey how he amassed his fortune with his Knickerbocker Ice Company which transported ice in summer and coal in winter. The image of the poor box at church helps to convey his charitable contributions and his generosity to the poor. Money illustrates his pursuit of wealth as a means to an end and books illustrate his love of reading while the image of the ship echoes the fact that he came from a family of immigrants.
Since he was a daily communicant towards the end of his life, the Sacred Host conveys his religious devotion and the image of the church building is St. Patrick’s Church at 20th and Locust Streets where he was a member for most of his life. The image of the lantern symbolizes wisdom which is the meaning of his wife Sophia’s name. Genovese’s first project for Roman Catholic High School was a stained glass window of St. Michael, the school’s patron saint with the words Fider et Scientia, Latin for Faith and Science, the school’s motto. Also depicted are the four evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Her second project for Roman Catholic called for her to illustrate the school’s myriad student activities such as theatre; the school’s quarterly newspaper, The Cahillite; music; student government; the mentoring program, religious education, community service and sports such as: football, basketball, soccer, baseball, lacrosse and track.
The Cahill Club, comprised of Roman Catholic alumni sponsored the latest stained glass window installation dedicated to the school’s founder. The entire stained glass restoration project has been overseen by the school’s rector Father Joseph Bongard who said that the catalyst for the restoration of the three windows was a photo sent to the school on their 100th anniversary in 2008 by a woman in California whose father was a 1908 graduate of the school. In the photo, the transom windows were all stained glass as opposed to just plain colored glass. So, the idea to restore the windows was born. However, the new designs are contemporary and totally original and can be seen in the Gothic arches above the main doors of the school on Broad Street.
Genovese’s old world style is delicate and forceful and seems to favor the Bavarian style of design as practiced by FX Zettler studio in Germany which closed approximately 75 years. She describes her figures as being “very symmetrical with large eyes and almost theatrical with color added to the lips and eyelids.”
Beyer Studio, which was founded by Joe Beyer 30 years ago, works closely with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia by helping to catalogue stained glass windows from churches that have closed in the archdiocese and restoring them for use in other churches in the diocese and in churches all over the country. Beyer accepts commissions from universities and has done major restoration work for Lehigh University and Princeton University.
Although Beyer Studio does not take private commissions, Melissa Genovese accepts some freelancing work on her own.