Stained-glass saints bless two United Methodist flocks, now joined as one

"A merging congregation is like a marriage," said the pastor. “There are some uncomfortable pieces to it," but also joy and excitement.

Rev. Timothy Thomson-Hohl, pastor of Ardmore United Methodist Church, rejoices in the Easter Sunday unveiling of four stained glass windows of gospel-writing saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John that came from Bala Cynwyd UMC after it closed and merged with his congregation.

Her voice was tearful but her heart was filled with joy as Laura Ludwick White stood by the Ardmore United Methodist Church altar on Easter Sunday and dedicated four stained-glass windows, newly installed in the wall behind her, in memory of her parents, grandparents and an uncle.

The 1931-era windows, depicting the Gospel-writing saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in brilliant blue, green and purple, were from the shuttered United Methodist Church of Bala Cynwyd, on Levering Mill Road near Montgomery Avenue, where four generations of White’s family were baptized, worshiped and married.

Beset by the depleted finances of a diminished congregation, the Bala church merged with Ardmore UMC in 2014 and sold its building. Last year, White and her family funded what she calls “the joyous journey” of the four stained-glass windows to their new home in the sanctuary of the Ardmore church on Argyle Road near Linwood Avenue. “This was a labor of love,” she said.

After the Rev. Timothy Thomson-Hohl, who has been the Ardmore UMC pastor for six years, promised the Easter Sunday congregation “a wonderful surprise for all of you,” the windows were illuminated for the first time by light boxes hidden behind them, and were welcomed as warmly as the Ardmore churchgoers embraced their fellow Methodists from Bala.

“The windows symbolize the joining of two faithful Christian communities,” White said before she, her husband, Tony, and their daughter Jennifer, 21, lit the paschal candle, representing the risen Christ as the light of hope dispelling darkness.

White’s fellow congregants agreed. “Bala was very music-oriented,” said the Rev. Mary B. Duff, 92, who was director of Christian education at UMC of Bala Cynwyd for 15 years, “and so is this church.”

Soprano Heather Phillips’ stirring rendition of “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth” from Handel’s Messiah and the church choir’s “Hallelujah Chorus” soon confirmed Duff’s words.

“Pastor Tim welcomed us,” said George Ellis, who attended the Bala church for 82 of his 90 years. Part of the Ardmore UMC welcome, he said, is “Tables for Eight,” an ongoing series of potluck dinners where worshipers from Bala and Ardmore gather in each other’s homes.

“It was heartbreaking to leave,” said Ellis' wife, Paula Engard-Ellis, who was a lay leader at the Bala church for 28 years, “but this church is a good match. There’s a similarity in the liturgies.”

Engard-Ellis' son, Randy Schrader, visiting for the holiday from Randolph, N.J., with his wife, Laura, and their children Huck, 10, and Gracie, 12, said he remembers the stained-glass windows from attending youth groups in the Bala church “so it’s really great to see them here.”

The windows’ church-to-church journey wasn’t easy. “I have never done this before,” said Suzanna E. Barucco, an architectural conservator with a specialization in stained-glass restoration. “Usually, when churches close, the windows are removed and sold on a secondary market for new churches.”

Barucco, of Ardmore, was brought together with both churches through Partners for Sacred Places, a nonprofit headquartered in Center City, which tries to repurpose historic religious properties. She said this is the first time she moved stained-glass windows from the church being sold to the church welcoming the displaced worshipers. “It’s a great way to memorialize the joining of these two congregations,” she said.

Barucco was able to remove the four stained glass windows from the Gothic-style Bala church, install them behind the altar of the Colonial Georgian style Ardmore UMC, and magically create architectural harmony there with the lone existing stained glass window.

“All these windows could’ve been in that same place all along,” said Clare Sautter, a lay leader at Ardmore UMC. “Blending the architectural styles symbolizes bringing people together from both congregations and building on our strengths.”

Thomson-Hohl said that some members of his congregation were concerned that the four Bala windows would overwhelm the Ardmore UMC’s single round window. But they don’t.

The Bala windows, he said, “are not like, ‘Wow! A rocket going off!’ They blend in beautifully like they’re supposed to be there.

“A merging congregation is like a marriage,” the pastor said. “There are some uncomfortable pieces to it, but there is also joy and excitement. Our congregations have come together as one and really understand the symbolic nature of preserving a little piece of the Bala legacy in the windows. We are a united family. This has been a blessing and a joy.”