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Shattered stained-glass windows returning to Christ by the Sea

Photo: Paul Pickel with restored stained glass.

Three months after the shocking Easter Week vandalism at Christ by the Sea United Methodist Church, during which several of the church's one-of-a-kind stained glass windows were shattered, repairs finally have been completed and the windows will soon be reinstalled in the prow-like front of the church and along one side.

Fortified by a new protective layer, they will replace the shutters that have darkened the sanctuary since April, when a troubled 17-year-old  Vero Beach High School senior hurled  rocks though the church's windows in three separate incidents during Holy Week, according  to police reports.

On May 2, Vero Beach Police charged Keith Andrew McFarlane III with three felony counts of criminal mischief.  At that time the teen was already in detention at the St. Lucie Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Fort Pierce "for previous crimes." He was scheduled to appear before a judge May 15, which was, ironically, his 18th birthday. No further information has been available, and, according to the Indian River County Courthouse Criminal Division, McFarlane has not entered the system as an adult.

The windows were designed and fabricated in the 1990s by world-renowned stained-glass artist, sculptor and painter, the late Conrad Pickel, in his Vero Beach Studio. Pickel's son, Paul, grew up watching his father create glass masterpieces for clients all over the world, including several in Vero Beach, and now carries on his father's work.

The church contacted Pickel shortly after the vandalism to assess the damage to the magnificent 8-foot by 10-foot windows in the front, facing A1A, and other windows in the nave and on the side of the sanctuary – seven in all.

Pickel removed the damaged sections and transported them to his studio where he and his team of artists began a lengthy and painstaking restoration process.

Now the reconstructed windows sit in the artist's studio, awaiting completion of the specially crafted protective layer of glass that will be installed in front of the stained glass.  Handling the broken pieces of his late father's work and remembering working side-by-side with him, Pickel calls the damage "heartbreaking."

He explains that the shattered glass was hand-blown in Germany and France. Received at his studio in jewel-colored sheets, each piece had to be cut, colored and fired. Then the sections were carefully leaded and assembled, and finally installed.

Pickel said a project the size of the original Christ by the Sea installation typically takes at least six months to complete. If the windows were made today, he estimates they would cost in excess of $150,000.

No final figure for repairs is available yet, but Pickel said in May fixing and reinstalling the seven damaged windows could cost as much as $15,000.

Over the last three months, Pickel's artists have precisely reproduced each small segment, first on paper, then transferred to glass and cut with the utmost precision. Many pieces were hand-painted to reproduce the windows' splendid figures – Adam and Eve, a lion, a dove and many other minutely detailed and colored forms.

Assembled much like an extremely high-end jigsaw puzzle, the pieces must perfectly fit within the leading, much of which also had to be replaced. Each delicate piece was snugged into its lead "frame” using a special putty that hardens for a strong, waterproof fit. Finally, vertical "strengthening bars" were placed on the back of the windows, at intervals, for added stability.

Pickel is working with another company on the protective glass that will be installed.  After that is in place, the repaired stained-glass windows will go in behind, with a small gap between.

Christ by the Sea pastor Cliff Melvin says, "We are thrilled to know that the windows have been so superbly cared for by Pickel Studios, who did the original work many years ago." He adds that the extra “layer of protection has been made possible thanks to generous donors from our wonderful community. Once re-installation is complete we will plan a special dedication and blessing on a Sunday morning to celebrate the gift of their return."