Stained Glass Expert
Bill Dodds encountered his first stained-glass window when he was seven. On the way to visiting his grandparents in Pennsylvania, his family made a stop at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City to see where his parents were married. Eager to go inside—he’d never been in a church before—Dodds ran ahead. “I turned around to tell the others to hurry up. When I looked up there was the rose window. Forty feet across, like a giant kaleidoscope,” he says of the image that nothing he’d seen before could rival.
The experience stayed with him, buried in the back of his mind. Then, 25 years later, Dodds stumbled upon the Wilbur H. Burnham Studios, a renowned stained-glass design company located in his hometown of Wakefield, Mass., when he was rather unsure of what direction to take in his life. It was as an apprentice to a trio of nationally prominent designers, all in their 70s and 80s, that the young Dodds learned the skill in an old-time studio. The seasoned craftsmen had kept alive the Gothic style through their stained-glass work by way of the country’s major cathedrals.
Dodds, now 63, established Morning Star Stained Glass in Great Barrington nearly two decades ago and is now one of the few master stained-glass craftsmen in the country—he has worked in the medium for the last 40 years, spending his days polishing angel wings and getting up close and personal with the saints. His expertise, gleaned over decades of patient practice, means he is often called upon to drop everything and travel to some of the country’s most exquisite houses of worship to do extensive repair work.
“I’m really thankful for my craft,” says Dodds, who went south last spring for a stint in Tallahassee, Florida, where he has been pretty much camped out at St. Peter’s Anglican Cathedral, a 30,000-square-foot English-Gothic cathedral, the first to be built in the United States in almost 75 years. This magnificent place of worship—adorned by 24 spires, five Celtic crosses, a triumphant bell tower and soaring stained-glass panels—was completed in 2014 and officially dedicated as a cathedral last February. Dodds spends most of his days atop scaffolding there, filling a very tall order: removing the original glass from its lead outlines and installing new pieces to perfect the colors which, upon installation, did not translate as expected.
“Color has an emotional impact on people and gives a certain feel to how stained glass—or anything, really—comes across,” Dodds explains. The cathedral’s stained-glass windows were made by Roy Coomber of the J. Wippell Company, established in England in 1789. Dodds, who does all the U.S. installations for Wippell, was in charge of fitting the cathedral’s windows a few years back. But the colors were just not right. Different sunlight in England, where the windows were designed, than in Florida, where the windows are on display, resulted in colors that were off just enough to require this painstaking process of replacement. “We wanted to get it exactly right,” he says of the pieces that will be shining down on visitors for hundreds of years to come.
So, for the past ten months, Dodds has been surrounded by stained-glass windows depicting scenes from the life of the “Prince of the Apostles” and the first pope. At the moment, he is intent on a 35-foot-high window that he has divided into 16 sections. Each section, measuring about three-by-five feet, must be taken out one at a time. The process of removing the glass and replacing it sounds daunting, but Dodds is good for the challenge. His workbench is laden with a panoply of specialty hand tools that have not changed much in the past 1,000 years. He boasts a bucket of stained-glass knives, more than 100 in all, which keep company with 230 screwdrivers and 85 putty knives. The casual observer might not notice the attention to detail, but upon closer inspection it is almost palpable. Dodds calls it, “a certain obsession, a fascination,” easily distilled to a single factor: “I really love what I do.”
“I get to work in wonderful places,” says Dodds, citing his affinity for church steeples. When he is in the Berkshires, keen passersby might spy him winding the old clock in the steeple of the First Congregational Church of Lee—a seven-day clock that’s been telling time for over a century, a task he tackles usually on Saturday mornings.
And although Dodds plans to return, and back to wind that clock, for the moment he is embracing his nomadic lifestyle—moving from place to place depending on where the work is.