Barney Zeitz creates a stained glass window to honor Don Lyons

Barney Zeitz creates a stained glass window to honor Don Lyons

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For 19 years, the well-liked and much admired minister was known for the energy and creativity he brought to Grace Church and for his participation in the Island community.

Artist Barney Zeitz polishes the window before it's dedication. — Photo by Michael Cummo

Along with the usual worshipers, the pews at Grace Episcopal Church in Vineyard Haven were filled this Sunday with visitors on hand to honor the Rev. Donald Lyons, minister there from 1966 to 1985. Mr. Lyons was well-liked and much admired for the energy, enthusiasm, dedication, and creativity he brought to the church and his participation in the Island community.

Mr. Lyons and Mr. Zeitz
Mr. Lyons and Mr. Zeitz

To celebrate his vibrant ministry, a stained glass window created by artist Barney Zeitz was formally dedicated with a ceremony at the end of the service.

Lead by the choir and the Rev. Robert Hensley, the congregation proceeded into the Parish Hall where the window floated, shimmering, at the peak of the newly renovated outside wall.

“I didn’t know anything about this until this morning,” Mr. Lyons, now a stalwart choir member and lay reader, confided. Many knew of the upcoming dedication but kept it secret from the honoree.

After brief prayer and introductions, longtime parishioner Lee Fierro said she met Mr. Lyons when he visited her home. He promptly drafted her daughter Dinah into the children’s choir. Later, Ms. Fierro became an active member.

She recalled years of church activities with Mr. Lyons, his dynamic ministry, and memorable experiences working with him as an actor in Island Theatre Workshop productions.

“Don was the most generous person throughout the Island,” said Ms. Fierro. “He had a way with everybody, all ages.”

Mr. Hensley dedicated the window and walls to God, seeking blessings for those involved with the project. A reception followed with refreshments and hugs, handshakes, and congratulations for Mr. Lyons.

The round 51-inch diameter fused and bonded stained glass window features an image of a green Jerusalem cross on a clear background with lighter green details. When critical and long-deferred reconstruction of the parish house wall was being planned with participation by Mr. Hensley and then-junior warden Lena Prisco, designs by architect Carole Hunter featured a round window as a centerpiece. As Mr. Hensley sought financial contributions from parishioners to pay for a stained glass window, Joan Merry offered to fund the window as a way to honor her husband’s ministry, and she made the final choice of design and color.

“He’s the best minister I’ve ever had,” said Lorraine Clark, an active member since 1960. “He was the best because he was the most active, he had an extremely active church with everything you could think of.”

Ms. Clark’s four children grew up in the church. She taught Sunday School among other responsibilities.

“Jack of all trades, he really was,” said Anne Palches who had known Donald Lyons as minister and as a fellow actor with Island Theatre Workshop. “He did everything for everyone.”

“He was aware of everything going on with everybody,” said her husband, Peter Palches. “He seemed to me to be an ideal priest. “ Mr. Lyons officiated at the couple’s 1983 wedding.

Jamie Harris, a stately Wise Man in the elaborate Epiphany pageants of those years who also acted with Mr. Lyons in the uproarious “I’m Not Rappaport,” offered congratulations.

Church member Sandra Whitworth said her daughter, Posie Haeger, who attended Sunday School and Grace Pre-School years ago, saw the window and was struck by its tasteful beauty.

Diana Waring, whom Mr. Lyons had baptized in the waters of Lambert’s Cove when she was 10 months old, was on hand with her baby daughter, Hazel.

David Grey, who years ago had sung in a church musical production staged by Mr. Lyons, still attends and is a choir member.

After graduating from Bowdoin College in Maine, Mr. Lyons attended the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge. Ordained to the priesthood in 1955, he was assigned as Canon at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Boston.

“I was in charge of drunks and Evening Prayer,” he said.

“The drunks” were the homeless, addicts, others down on their luck. They wanted money, he recalled, but received meal vouchers.

In 1959 he became Archdeacon of New Hampshire. Along with establishing churches in Kingston and Salem, he chaired the New Hampshire Traffic Safety Commission.

His assignment to Grace Church came after Massachusetts Bishop Anson Stokes sought his opinion about placing another clergyman at the Vineyard parish whose minister, the Rev. Henry Bird, had resigned.

“Send me!” said Mr. Lyons. “I don’t know anything about Martha’s Vineyard. I’ve never been there, but I want to be someone’s minister.”

Mr. Lyons and his family, including five children, moved to Martha’s Vineyard in 1966.

Working with youngsters was his high priority. He developed a vital children’s choir with some three dozen members.He was renowned for his original children’s musical plays on Biblical themes.

He began “Monday School,” with religious education and outings, so popular that children from other faiths came. Advised that he could entice teens to youth group if he got Dennis DaRosa — then a popular high school athlete — to join, he did so and it worked.

Instituting a sports-themed Father-Son Dinner, he brought Red Sox players here, including Al “Sparky” Lyle and Bill “Spaceman” Lee. The church sponsored a sexuality course for junior high students.

When Tisbury Selectmen refused to allow a rock and roll group to play in town, Mr. Lyons established a Grace Church Coffee House. Luminaries appearing included William Styron, Jules Feiffer, Art Buchwald, and singer Kate Taylor. A dance drew nearly 250 teens.

Mr. Lyons was universally known for making home visits to parishioners, being aware of their needs, and helping however he could. He encouraged lonely people to come to church, comforted the sick, bereaved, and troubled, urged addicts to seek recovery, counseled about family problems, arranged rides for youngsters.

Services were spirited, music exceptional with talented choir and organists. Worship could be colorful like the Palm Sunday when a donkey lead the procession through the church, Rogation Day at Nip ‘n’ Tuck Farm where crops were blessed, dance as part of services, the congregation marching with a band to Owen Park for a baptism. There was Sunday evening “Rock and Roll Worship” and educational Passover Seders.

Fellowship activities like potluck suppers and weekend-long Parish Life Missions fostered closeness and camaraderie.

Mr. Lyons opened the church to community groups including Alcoholics Anonymous, Education for Childbirth, Red Stocking, a food coop, dance and theatre classes.

Grace Church had earlier donated Greenwood Avenue land to Camp Jabberwocky. Mr. Lyons welcomed the campers with disabilities to services and special events.

Especially meaningful to Mr. Lyons was his establishment of a partnership with the Melanesian Brothers, a band of monks dwelling on islands in the southwest Pacific. After taking no vacation for years, Mr. Lyons finally enjoyed a journey around the globe, a visit to the brothers his primary destination.

Mr. Lyons served Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, first as chairman of the Youth Center Committee, later heading the Committee on Alcoholism.

Concerned because Trinity Episcopal Chapel in Oak Bluffs was predominantly white, he enlisted Sen. Edward Brooke to draw African Americans. The Martha’s Vineyard NAACP recognized him for contributions to civil and human rights.

After leaving Grace Church, Mr. Lyons joined the MV Times staff as an ad salesman, then proofreader and copy editor, and finally as a lively sports writer. Mr. Lyons was as popular at the Times as he was at Grace Church; staff often sought his guidance when writing about religion. Although no longer a full-time minister, he has frequently been asked to officiate at weddings and funerals.

Few here knew about favorite earlier roles: serving as a baker in China for the U.S. Marines, in which he enlisted days before turning 18; or as a Bowdoin undergrad, directing the Meddiebempsters, a double-quartet of young singers so exemplary they were invited to tour European Army Bases.

A crowd gathered for the dedication ceremony.
A crowd gathered for the dedication ceremony.

Modestly accepting compliments, Mr. Zeitz watched with satisfaction as noonday sun sparkled through his creation. He used a fused and bonded glass technique, affixing handmade stained glass pieces to a clear backing. Painting the backing glass with colored metal oxide, he added cobalt blue to the green glass to emphasize the central crosses. He said the exceptionally high quality epoxy he used acted as a lens, creating the appearance of moving light.

It was a day of celebration too for contractor Michael Carroll, who witnessed the successful completion of the nearly six-month project. Despite being delayed by harsh weather, Mr. Carroll said the job had been fun and church members “wonderful to work with.” He was especially glad he could reuse the original wall’s exterior siding as trim and wainscoting.

“I like jobs like this where I feel I can contribute to the community,” he said.