The story of the Santa Marta windows

by Olivia Martin
olivia.martin@theleaven.org

OLATHE — Santa Marta retirement community here houses a valuable treasure, practically secret to the outside world.

It’s not a chest of silver and there’s no “X” that marks the spot.

But a visit to Santa Marta’s small chapel is all it takes to discover the community’s masterpieces: three hand-painted stained-glass windows depicting St. John Paul II, St. Teresa of Calcutta and St. John XXIII.

Tithing with art

Known for bridging divisions, no better examples of Christianity in the modern world could have been chosen than St. John Paul II, St. Teresa of Calcutta and St. John XXIII.

According to Msgr. Raymond Burger, chaplain of Santa Marta at the time of the commissioning of the windows, a group of Santa Marta residents collectively chose these saints to be rendered.

“They wanted modern saints,” said Msgr. Burger, “so it was only appropriate that they chose those three.”

Originally, the donation of the windows was anonymous. However, it was revealed in September that the donors were Betty and Tom Zarse, late residents of Santa Marta.

“My dad was a believer in tithing,” said Robert Zarse, son of Tom and Betty and a parishioner of Holy Trinity Parish in Lenexa.

Faithfully setting aside 10 percent of their income for their parish annually and responding to the church’s needs came naturally to the Zarses.

And the Santa Marta windows were simply the fruits of that generosity.

The process

Commissioned in May 2017, the windows were created by Scottish Stained Glass (SSG) employing the same method and craftsmanship artisans have used for hundreds of years.

With branches across the United States, the creation of the windows was a national team effort that began in Kansas City.

Megan Hessman, senior designer for SSG, worked directly with Santa Marta and then-anonymous donor Tom Zarse to arrive at the design.

“Tom was a very insightful person to work with,” said Hessman. “He wanted everything balanced and . . . wanted the saints to look like they were floating.”

In choosing a clear glass design that matches the lattice tiling in the chapel, Hessman and Zarse created a design that unified the space.

Six to eight weeks later, Dallas-based artist Maria Sheets began hand-painting each window.

“Painted glass is really specialized,” said Martin Faith, founder and CEO of SSG. “You have to be a really, really good artist to pull something like this off — Maria is.”

One of only a handful of artists worldwide who have mastered painting on glass, Sheets had her work cut out for her — especially with Santa Marta’s windows.

“There’s a tradition [in stained glass] where we copy [figures from] old panels that artists have made,” said Sheets, “but we don’t know what those people looked like.”

But the three modern saints in Santa Marta presented more of a challenge.

“It was especially important for me to get them very beautiful [because these are] contemporary figures who people have seen and actually know,” she said.

It took Sheets three months to paint the windows, averaging one week of work on each face and pair of hands.

After each layer of paint, the glass was transferred and fired in a kiln — a delicate process.

“By the time I bring [the glass] to the shipper, I’ve moved it from the kiln to my table 44 times,” said Sheets.

The pieces of glass were assembled in Colorado and Texas then shipped to Kansas. They were finally installed in November 2017.

Pride in a job well done

Years ago, Faith saw St. John Paul II in Colorado. He knew then that this pope was someone he could follow.

“People saw him as being more human and more personable than some of his predecessors,” said Faith.

The pontiff continued to touch Faith’s life to such a degree that he, too, donated some of his own money to help make the Santa Marta windows a reality.

“This may be my favorite project of all time,” said Faith.

And after overseeing the creation of 70,000 stained-glass windows over a span of 30 years, that’s saying something.

“I’m hoping people stop and look in their eyes and think about these people as humans, as people who struggled,” said Sheets. “It’s a memorial.”

The beauty of their memorial certainly is not in vain.

“To have something of beauty and that really expresses our Catholicism,” said Robert Zarse, “that means a lot to [the Santa Marta residents].

“It’s good for them to have a chapel that’s really pretty.”

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