A tale of two villages

Tisbury and Chilmark, U.K., look to connect around a stained-glass project at St. John’s Church.


What does a medieval church built between 1180 and 1200 have in common with Martha’s Vineyard? St. John’s parish church is located in Tisbury, U.K., and the village’s name, along with the nearby village of Chilmark, traveled here with the English colonists in the 17th century.

Photographs of these still rural towns in England with their Black Dog pub, school, and church recall historic images of Martha’s Vineyard. St. John’s, with its 850-year history, is at the center of the Zoom program “A New East Window for St John’s Church, Tisbury, U.K.” at the Vineyard Haven library this week.

The program came about when the Tisbury Historic Society in the U.K. reached out to Anne McDonough, program coordinator at the Vineyard Haven library, as a contact for anyone who is looking to trace their family roots back across the pond. “Tisbury, U.K., also has historical talks, and I Zoomed into one led by Sean Moran who, while a retired banker, is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, with a passion for architecture and history about cathedrals,” McDonough says. Shortly after, Moran reached out to introduce McDonough to a project involving the church.

St. John’s has an interesting history with several significant burials, including in 1590 of Lawrence Hyde, who was the great-great-grandfather to two Queens of England — Queen Mary II and Queen Anne; and one in 1649, of Anne Arundell, who married the second Lord Baltimore and with him became the founder of the new American state of Maryland. For good measure, in 1910 and 1911, Rudyard Kipling’s mother and father respectively were buried in the churchyard.

But what Moran dearly wants to share is an exciting undertaking at St. John’s having to do with the creation of a whole new stained-glass window to replace the deteriorating Victorian east window. This worn-out work, damaged through wars, poor restoration, and time, now has a new vision. An internationally and nationally renowned stained-glass artist, Tom Denny, has designed a window with the overarching vision of “Into the Light.” The completed artwork is intended to serve as a memorial to the community’s loved ones, and to create a place of beauty, contemplation, and peace. Moran emphasizes, “Part of the idea is that however you worship, you can have your relationship with God sitting before a stained-glass window. You can connect with them and take joy and peace from them.”

The design is radiant. Denny says, “The theme is ‘Seeing.’ Seeing the Glory of God — epiphanies in ordinary and extraordinary moments in life. This is expressed in the center of the window in the story of the Transfiguration of Christ, divinity seen amongst us.” Denny has included scenarios with various figures and creatures, all with their own symbolic significance. Above, in the tracery with its swarm of shapes of varying sizes, the theme is the resurrection, of being changed in seeing the risen Christ.

Denny, who is currently working on a stained-glass window in Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan, says, “All of my windows are made with materials and techniques largely the same as those used in 14th century stained glass, with the addition of acid etching of flashed glass, a technique that developed in the 19th century.” (See Denny at work at youtu.be/8eJasJHVcnw.)

Unlike during medieval or Renaissance times when aristocrats, rulers, and the church commissioned art, Moran became excited about the idea of turning to the citizens of the area to create something extraordinary at St. John’s.

“I thought we could excite our community, both those in and out of the church, if we could explain the importance of the window and get them to buy into fundraising to support an international artist doing the design,” Moran says. “People, whether they worship in church on Sundays or not, all have loved ones that they want to commemorate and remember.”

Interestingly, this idea of having ordinary citizens fund the project came from something connected to the U.S. Moran is a guide in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, where he says, “There is a most glorious American chapel. It was the largest part of the cathedral that was damaged in the Second World War. At the end of the war, Eisenhower offered Churchill for the American people to rebuild this part. Churchill instead said he wanted the British people to rebuild it in honor of the Americans who died serving in the U.K. and Europe, and to be a memorial to them.” The result was an immensely successful subscription campaign. The campaign for St. John’s window has electrified the local community. They have raised all but $90,000 of the total $260,000. Moran hopes that people here in Tisbury and Chilmark will want to memorialize their loved ones, to celebrate the historic connection between the two peoples reinforced by there being a Tisbury and Chilmark in England and on Martha’s Vineyard.

So here’s a chance to connect globally. As McDonough says, “It’s a good investment because your donation is going to last another 800 years within this church. Your descendants are going to say, ‘Oh, great-great-grandmother in Tisbury or Chilmark gave $100 to the window in the U.K.’ I think it’s a nice humanitarian gesture … that lasts.”

For a Zoom link for “A New East Window for St John’s Church, Tisbury, U.K.” on Sept. 15 at 1 pm contact Sean Moran at seantisbury@icloud.com. See the window and project plans at eastwindowtisbury.com.