Places & Faces
Windows for the Soul
10/1/2019 1:00:00 PM


A historical and spiritual treasure in downtown Lake Charles has just undergone an extensive restoration. 

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception was designed by the architectural firm of Favrot & Livaudais of New Orleans in the Lombardy Romanesque style. Dedicated in 1913, it remained merely a church until January 29, 1980, when Pope John Paul II established the Diocese of Lake Charles. It was then that Immaculate Conception became the cathedral for the new diocese. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places on October 7, 1994.

As expected, a great amount of structural repair was sorely needed after so many years. But something else also required some immediate attention. In the 1930s, the St. Louis-based stained glass studio, Emil Frei Art Glass, created and installed the magnificent stained glass windows that we see in the cathedral today. Not only is that company (which initially opened in 1898 in Germany) still in existence, Stephen Frei, a direct descendant of Emil Frei, came to Lake Charles this year to supervise the restoration of these beautiful windows. 

According to the Diocese, Stephen Frei also made two trips during the earlier planning stages to inspect, analyze and provide detailed reports of each window along with an appraisal of value. 

"Given their age, the windows were in rather good shape,” says Aaron Frei, Stephen’s son and the president of Emil Frei and Associates. "That being said, there was still a great amount of work needed. A large part of the damage that had occurred was a result of surrounding conditions – inflexible old sealants and poor previous repairs, compounded over several generations.”

Frei says that some of the windows had experienced a significant amount of bulging, and had to be removed, flattened, and strengthened before they could be re-installed. 

"A substantial amount of rust had also developed on the steel frames surrounding the stained glass,” he continues. "That rust was removed and the steel frames were returned back to a near-original condition. The stained glass was also covered in a heavy patina of dirt, which we cleaned.” 

Not all of the work was done on-site. "A good many pieces had suffered cracks and shatters and had to be recreated back at the Studio in St. Louis according to the exact techniques used originally,” Frei says. "While we spent roughly six months on-site, there were many actions being taken back at the studio to supplement that work.”

Frei believes that one of the greatest changes was the replacement of the old protective coverings on the exterior. "They were plated in the 1960s with a material known as Lexan. Over time, the Lexan had yellowed and clouded to such a degree that it was difficult to tell that stained glass existed underneath. It also sapped much of the beauty of the mouth-blown glass employed in our windows. The crystalline quality of the glass, one of its greatest features, was being lost to the opaque quality of the Lexan.”

The solution? They replaced the old coverings with ½” tempered glass, which will never experience the same problem, and allows for the windows to be enjoyed in their most authentic and beautiful form. 

The Frei windows are indeed beautiful. They were designed in the "Munich Pictorial” style, which the Frei studio did extensively from 1898 to 1940. The only difference is that the cathedral windows have a simpler background as opposed to the architectural canopy often used in standard "Munich Pictorial” windows.  

"In the history of stained glass, this level of painting is, without question, the height of man’s talent,” Frei explains.  "The facial expressions, the delicacy of the robes and garments, and the usage of deep and rich colors are all hallmarks of this style.” 

As the name suggests, "Munich Pictorial” originated in Bavaria in the mid 1800s. Frei’s great-great grandfather, Emil Frei, Sr., studied at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts before bringing this style with him to the United States in the late 1800s. 

All in all, there are 127 stained glass windows at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. "The large majority of them have been finished, " Frei says. "The remainder will be attended to this winter.”

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