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Mosaic Artwork for Holy Redeemer aims to evangelize, inspire

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By Joseph Kenny

Katie McCullough, left, and John Wheadon from Emil Frei Stained Glass worked recently on a mosaic for Holy Redeemer Church in Webster Groves. (Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.)

Katie McCullough, left, and John Wheadon from Emil Frei Stained Glass worked recently on a mosaic for Holy Redeemer Church in Webster Groves. (Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.)

They really do whistle while they work at Emil Frei Stained Glass in Kirkwood.

And there’s a lot of happy chirping about one of their latest projects, an art form that is rarely seen developed nowadays — mosaics to cover a wall behind a side altar at Holy Redeemer Church in Webster Groves.

The skilled artisans, who have refined their craft through several generations, are working on one of the bigger mosaics to be completed in St. Louis since the massive project at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis.

“We talked about what would be an appropriate backdrop for the tabernacle for the side altar,” said Father Ken Brown, pastor of Holy Redeemer. The mid-century modern (1960s) church already had an image of the crucified Christ and a “glorious window of Christ as a priest and the risen Christ,” he said.

But there is no symbol of the Lamb of God, Father Brown said, adding that it was agreed “that would be a very fitting symbol there.” The design has a host-like figure in the center, he said, and “what looks much like a monstrance with rays radiating out of it. … We thought it would be a reminder even when we’re not doing eucharistic adoration or celebrating Mass.”

Stained glass, a tapestry, a mural and other possibilities were considered but ruled out. A number of donors were eager to underwrite the expense, Father Brown said.

The process has taken about a year, with installation possibly occurring by the end of July. “It will be a lively piece for years and years to come,” Father Brown said. “It will cover the whole wall, and is quite striking.”

Stephen Frei, president of the company, said creating new designs is “where you leave your footprint in history. If the engineering, art and science and theology are sound, you’ll have something that will be around for so many generations.”

Founded in St. Louis in 1898 by Bavarian-born artist Emil Frei Sr., the company has been a leader in the field of stained glass and mosaics in the United States. The firm remains a traditional-style association of craftsmen and artists under the leadership of the fourth generation of Freis, each of whom has made and overseen major artistic contributions to the field, especially in the realm of the liturgical arts.

Skilled craftsman John Wheadon, the whistler and sometimes singer while at work, said the designer, William Frank, wanted to include various materials. So he included tesserae (small glass mosaic tile from Italy), ceramic tile cut and glazed, pieces of melted glass, onyx, marble, alabaster, a specially coated gold tessare, hand-formed clay and even roofing granules.

As Wheadon was busy fixing tile, laying some down and cleaning it, he described the results, noting that color changes and differences in the sizes and shapes of the pieces are intentional. “As you walk past this mosaic, it catches light from all different places in the church. It will shimmer and sparkle.”

Created into the surface are various symbols representing God and aspects of the faith, much of it based on a reading of Revelation. Twelve stars, each unique, represent God’s cosmic reign. “Every time you come back to this mosaic you will see something different,” said Wheadon, who has an architectural degree from Washington University.

A new twist to the mosaic work involves using pieces that are of various shapes, adding a wavy pattern when seen fit. “It’s anything but level,” Stephen Frei said. “We don’t want it to look two-dimensional.”

The result is meant to be evangelizing, he noted, and meaningful to all age levels.

In the 1920s Emil Frei Sr. was commissioned to design the mosaics for the new St. Louis Cathedral on Lindell Boulevard. He and others founded Ravenna Mosaics, Inc. in 1924. In 1929 Ravenna Mosaics separated from Emil Frei Art Glass, eventually under the leadership of Paul Heudeck again sharing quarters with Emil Frei Inc., until the end of World War II.

Today Emil Frei does work all over the country. News reports have described their work on the 22 lower panels of St. Michael Church near Biloxi, Miss., destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.Also noteworthy is recent work on the chapel at Harvard University’s Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Work is finishing on a chapel at Good Samaritan Regional Health Center in Mount Vernon, Ill.

Stephen Frei said the sixth generation is beginning to work at the firm. Several of the Freis have degrees in related areas, and while in college aiming for other careers but eventually coming back.

“How often do you get a chance to work with something so beautiful and with the cream of society — priests, nuns, bishops, church architects — in spaces so gorgeous all over the country?” Stephen Frei asked.

His father, 86, continues to work there. Two of Stephen Frei’s sons have master’s degrees in theology. “It’s our job to spark the discussion of theology. It’s not our job to create new theology,” Stephen Frei said.


Published in: St. Louis Review. Volume 71, Number 24. Pages 2-3