It took fresh eyes to point out just how significant those windows are to members of a rural congregation
December 6, 2023
For 120 years now, First Presbyterian Church of Kewanee, Illinois, has possessed two rare treasures that members and friends often took for granted.
The sanctuary of the church of about 60 members, located an hour southeast of the Quad Cities, is home to two stained-glass windows featuring people of color, including Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
“Our theory is the windows were always in the sanctuary,” which was constructed in 1903, said Annabell Williams-Blegen, whose husband, the Rev. Art Blegen, was called to serve the predominantly white congregation in 2020. “We have long-term people who have recognized these windows have always been part of the life of the church.
Together with church secretary and church member Janie Metscaviz, Blegen and Williams-Blegen sat together in a church pew to meet via Zoom with Presbyterian News Service to discuss the rare and beautiful stained-glass windows, which are on either side of the sanctuary.
“This sanctuary calls out for unity,” said Williams-Blegen, a certified Christian counselor who often preaches in nearby churches and is working at becoming a commissioned pastor. When she and her husband arrived at First Presbyterian Church three years ago, “I had to draw their attention to the windows. They hadn’t even thought about it.”
“Until Annabell pointed it out, I never really gave it much thought,” said Metscaviz. “I was baptized in this church. My mom and dad were married here, and our ancestors have belonged here for a long time.”
More than a century ago, Metscaviz’s forebears came to Kewanee from Damascus, Syria. “I have a pretty strong connection here,” she said. “But it took Annabell to come in” and point out why the windows are significant, Metscaviz said.
“I have been around the block a time or two,” Williams-Blegen said with a smile. “When you’re a person in a minority, you can see individuals. You can see a person who doesn’t have your best interests at heart. You don’t find that here.”
Metscaviz has dug through church records, including financial reports, dating back to 1852 to learn more about why biblical characters such as Jesus and Mary Magdalene would be depicted on stained glass as people of color, but found nothing. “There were no Buildings and Grounds Committee reports, just nothing there,” she said. “I did find mention of the windows being repaired [during the 1950s], but the company that did the repairs had no information.”
“If those windows are truly from 1903, that’s not long after [the northern and southern churches] split [over the slavery issue],” Blegen noted. “That they put those windows in is a testament, and they aren’t little,” measuring about 13 feet across and 15 feet tall, he said.
“No one seems to make an issue of it,” said Williams-Blegen. “We try to present Jesus as he was. We are fortunate to have a congregation that asks questions to get good clarity.”
It was a former pastor, the Rev. Dr. Jim Breed, who continues to worship at First Presbyterian Church, who pointed out to Williams-Blegen that the kneeling figure featured in one of the windows is indeed Mary Magdalene. The scene is from John 20:17, where Jesus tells her following his resurrection, “Do not touch me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
Even if members and friends of First Presbyterian Church aren’t celebrating every week the rare gems that highlight the church’s sanctuary, community members won’t let them forget.
“People in this church may take them for granted,” Blegen said. “But when they talk to people in the community, they’ll say, ‘Go to First Presbyterian Church. It’s the church with the Black Jesus.’”
Williams-Blegen said she loves how prominent the windows are, both in the sanctuary and in the community.
“You don’t have to squint your eyes to see them,” she said, adding that FPC is seeking a grant to offer protection to the windows, which are in “remarkable shape” despite their age.
“They are one of a kind,” she said.
Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service
Today’s Focus: First Presbyterian Church in Kewanee, IL, stained-glass windows
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