St. Luke’s new icons more representative of community

Published 12:05 am Sunday, May 22, 2022

By Elisabeth Strillacci

The stained glass window icons at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church are a big part of the building’s history, but a study in recent years of the windows, and the people in them, made it clear they are not accurate depictions of what those people would have actually looked like.

Built in 1828 and expanded and renovated in 1883, 1909, 2003, and 2015, St. Luke’s is still, said Father Robert Black, rector of the church, a reflection of the time in which it was built. In the fall of 2020, Black held 12 in-depth classes on the sanctuary, with special focus on the stained glass windows.

“One thing that becomes obvious when studying our windows is that many of the saints depicted in them are not accurately represented,” Black wrote in describing planned additions to existing artwork. “We know that the disciples and other Biblical figures were what we would call today ‘Middle Eastern.’ However, in our windows, they are all depicted as Europeans. This is understandable given the era they were installed. For one, this gives us an impoverished sense of Biblical literacy and theological imagination. Furthermore, this lack of diversity and accuracy works against our aim of beloved community and makes our space less welcoming to many people.”

But what can be done about massive stained glass windows that are pieces of art well over 100 years old? Solutions like removing or replacing the windows seemed both cost prohibitive and controversial.

“Plus, it wouldn’t show the history, the progression we are making,” said Black. “Our goal was, and is, that anyone who walks into this sanctuary can look around and see themselves here, no matter who they are.” 

The congregation decided to have three well-known iconographers, Suzanne Schleck, Dorothy Perez and Kelly Latimore, write seven new icons for the sanctuary. The new pieces would be placed between the existing windows in logical relationships. For instance, Perez was commissioned to create a two-by-three-foot icon of the church’s patron, St. Luke, that is situated in the Baptistry with existing windows depicting the saint. Two larger icons, approximately four feet wide by seven feet high, were created by Latimore of the Transfiguration of Christ and the Pentecost, and they are placed on either side of the stained glass window depicting the Ascension of Christ. Four more of the smaller icons depicting Manteo, William Wilberforce, Bishop Henry Beard Delaney, and Elizabeth Duncan Koontz, are posted in the forward part of the sanctuary next to related windows. Manteo is believed to be the first person baptized in the Church of England in the Western hemisphere. Wilberforce was a member of British Parliament in the 1700s and 1800s who proposed legislation against slavery more than 30 times before finally getting it through. Delany was one of the first black bishops to serve in The Episcopal Church and spent time in Salisbury at St. Luke’s. Koontz was a champion for equity, education and justice. She was a member of St. Philip’s and later, St. Luke’s. She served as the director of the Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor and the president of the National Education Association. A graduate of Livingstone College, the Salisbury Human Relations Council bestows the Elizabeth Duncan Koontz Humanitarian Award annually and St. Luke’s has recently begun commemorating her on Jan. 7.

This icon portraying Elizabeth Duncan Koontz was one of four created by Episcopal iconographer Suzanne Schleck. Elisabeth Strillacci/Salisbury Post

Black said the project was not an overnight thought, but the natural progress that began when he first came to the church eight years ago, and began to look around at the church’s surroundings to determine how the church could be supportive of its neighbors.

“We are surrounded by the jail, the courthouse, police and sheriff’s departments — basically the criminal justice world,” he said. “That lead us to look at race in the criminal justice world, and then in our world, and we determined to focus on racial justice and equality.”

Black pointed out that all three artists were invited to spend time in the sanctuary, to see the designs already in place, the lighting and the personality they would need to have their designs fit into. He said he discussed with Lattimore the fact that by the time Luke wrote about the Pentecost, many of the people he wrote about no longer existed as groups, so he wrote about it in a way “that transcended a particular time and space,” and he said he believes Lattimore captured that in the icon.

Five of the icons were paid for by individual donors, and there are plaques under each indicating sponsorhip, though Black said many chose to be anonymous. The cost of two of the icons, the one of Koontz and the one of the Pentecost, were paid for by donations from the congregation. Black said it was important for the entire church to feel ownership of the project.

New works of art are not the only way the church is incorporating work on racial justice. All clergy have attended training by the Racial Equity Institute, and the church is both a sponsor and a partner of Racial Equity Rowan, a local organization working to bring REI workshops to Rowan County. There are gatherings to watch videos about racial issues then discuss them every few months, to which the public is invited, and there are frequent joint events with Soldiers Memorial AME-Zion Church.

“This is an ongoing, long-term commitment,” said Black, pointing out that more events and efforts will be forthcoming.

Black was chosen one of three recipients of the Elizabeth Duncan Koontz awards this year, in large part due to the new icons and the church’s focus on racial justice. 

“Father Black has made significant contributions to the improvement of human relations in Salisbury through his leadership in efforts called “Becoming Beloved Community,” which is the church’s long-term commitment to racial justice and healing,” the Salisbury Human Relations Council noted when announcing the awards. “He led St. Luke’s on a project to address representation in religious art in the city’s most historic church building which resulted in the commissioning of religious icons, including an icon of Elizabeth Duncan Koontz.”