The 93-year-old Monastery of the Perpetual Rosary, known locally as the Blue Chapel, stands grandly, yet unoccupied, on 14th Street in Union City.
Built in 1919 and once home to the Dominican Nuns of the Blue Chapel, the historic monastery was nearly turned into a five-story affordable housing building.
In 2009, after residents and local historians banded together and fought for its preservation, the structure was spared.
Union City resident Kathie Pontus, known for her dedication to the protection and preservation of the city’s cultural and historic resources, was able to convince N.J. Preservation – a privately supported organization – to list the chapel as an endangered building online in 2010. Union City’s Historic Preservation Advisory Committee and Mayor Brian Stack worked to have it designated as a municipal landmark. There are protective stipulations written into the city’s most recent zoning plan passed earlier this year.
“They were all the hand of a master at work.” – Gregory Witul
According to local historian Tony Squire, the structure’s stained glass windows could be the window of opportunity needed. Squire has discovered through painstaking research that the windows, thought originally to be imported from Germany, were in fact created by Buffalo, N.Y. stained glass artist Leo P. Frohe of Buffalo Glass Works in the spirit of the historic Munich School style.
“While one may envision the Blue Chapel becoming a national landmark one day, it is premature at this point,” Squire stated. “You must [first] establish its architectural or historical or artistic importance. The latter may encompass ‘the work of a master’ or the studio of a significant artist.”
Squire’s research may reveal Frohe to be just such a master.
Spiritual revelation through physical experience
There was good reason for scholars to believe the windows came from Germany, as they uphold many of the unique characteristics of the stained glass that hailed from a group of Munich artists during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The artwork from the Munich School mirrored the European Romantic era style of artistic, musical, and religious philosophy that took the lofty, hyper rational ideals of the preceding period and brought them, in a sense, back to earth.
It was believed beforehand that nature and the body were imperfect and that spiritual enlightenment could only be achieved by rejecting one’s earthly experience. The Romantic era proposed that true spiritual revelation was achieved instead by embracing nature and human emotion.
This philosophical 180 was reflected most literally, perhaps, in church art; and in the more specific instance of the Blue Chapel, in stained glass work.
Once considered the “poor man’s bible,” the stained glass windows became a physical way for churchgoers to personally experience the transcendence of God, as was the intent of Frohe and his contemporaries.
Squire believes Frohe’s work in the chapel personifies this philosophy. The first of seven aisle windows marks the first of a progressive, artistic narrative through the New Testament Gospel of Luke. As one walks through the church, he or she is taken on a journey that is compounded by the effects of light from outside.
“As the sun traces its course, the light shimmers like molten glass and [progressively] obliterates any details in the glass,” Squire described. “The windows take on an eerie glow in the darkened chapel when no lights are turned on.”
A glow, one can presume, that was intended to enhance the spiritual experience of the observer.
Determining mastery and quality
In order for the Blue Chapel to qualify as a national landmark, not only must it meet the artistic master criteria, but it must be well-preserved. According to Squire, the stained glass windows are in excellent condition, in part because the nuns who lived there were cloistered and the chapel was closed to the public for many years.
“The Blue Chapel windows are in very good condition considering they have hit the century mark,” he said. “Usually beginning around 60 years and for up to 80 years, the lead begins to deteriorate and the windows show signs of buckling. All the stained-glass windows of the Chapel are intact.”
As for Frohe’s legitimacy as a master, stained glass expert and Frohe enthusiast Gregory Witul believes he absolutely passes muster.
“The Buffalo Stained Glass Works has a history that reaches back to the very beginning of stained glass in the United States,” he explained. “Of all the important artists associated with that studio, Leo P. Frohe truly stood out because of his silver medal in the Exposition Universelle of 1889.”
The Exposition was held in France, which Frohe had to beat out hundreds of U.S. competitors in order to attend alongside the “best of the best,” Witul said. His work in the Blue Chapel stands as a continuation of this sort of excellence.
“From the balance of color he used in his glass selection to the painted detail of the faces in his windows, they were all the hand of a master at work,” Witul added. “Frohe’s windows have the look and feel of the Munich artists, again, with the large pictorial windows with highly detailed figures, architecture, and landscapes all in a gothic frame.”
The Blue Chapel is located at 605 14th St. For more information, call (201) 866-7004.
Gennarose Pope may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org