Family history connects artists to the time-worn glass they restore and repair. For Andrew McCausland, stained glass brought him to his daughter.
Andrew McCausland was seven years old when he shoved his tiny hands into a box of broken glass — tearing cuts into his fingers and palms, as he sorted stained glass in his father’s Etobicoke workshop.
As the young man peered close to determine the exact shade — was this piece grey-green, yellow-green, or blue green? — he had no way of knowing stained glass would one day help him find his daughter, on a Caribbean island thousands of miles from Toronto.
For that day, in 1957, it was simply an exercise in colour.
If you ask McCausland about stained glass now, 60 years later, his voice still lifts when discussing hues. “You have an infinite variety of colours, and hand-blown glass has little striations and imperfections in the glass,” he croons. “And what happens is, when the sun shines through it, it sparkles.”
A love for stained glass is deep rooted in his family — he started at seven because his father, Gordon, owned a restoration studio. His grandfather Alan, owned it before that, after great-grandfather Robert and his great-great grandfather Joseph, the studio’s founder, before that since 1856.
So he’d gleaned quite a bit of experience by 1978, when he was given a contract to repair the stained glass of every Anglican church on the island of Jamaica. The job took 14 years, on-and-off, as he flew down to Jamaica, carefully removed windows and shipped them to Canada for work.
One day while hunkered down working on a window, McCausland turned around to see a little girl staring back up at him.
“So I said, ‘hello!’ and she said ‘hello!’ ” he recalled.
He offered the little girl a candy: he’d keep them in his pockets for kids he came across during repair jobs. She sat beside him and watched him work for about fifteen minutes, before a woman came running from the nearby orphanage and brought the little girl back inside.
“Well, half an hour later, there she was again!” he said, laughing. “She kept that up all day long! And you know what? It worked. I fell in love with her.”
The little girl’s name was Velora, he learned. She was an orphan, about five or six at the time, and he started sending money to help take care of her. Three years later, he adopted her. With that, she was part of the McCausland family.
And that family has been intrinsically tied to the stories of some of Toronto’s best known stained glass and artists for decades — a curious fact illustrated by St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica on Church and Shuter Sts.
The church has been undergoing renovations for years — $130 million in renovations, to be exact. A man named John Wilcox was hired to work on seven brand new windows and restoration of over a hundred others. He’s worked on over a thousand windows in his lifetime, etching a mark on the city of Toronto from Queen’s Park to Spadina House.
His career started at the Robert McCausland studio.
“I was lucky enough to learn from artisans who had worked there since they returned from the Second World War,” 52-year-old Wilcox told the Star. In the evenings, he blew glass wherever he could. He chased stained glass through Europe and the Middle East, came home and opened the Vitreous Glassworks studio.
For the past five years, the windows at St. Michael’s have carved out a chunk of his life.
As the sun rose there on a quiet morning in November, it pierced through the south-facing windows. Starting at the hem of Mary’s cobalt blue robes at around 10 a.m., a point of brilliant white light moved higher as the morning stretched on, until — as if by the divine — it centred inside her glass halo.
Wilcox was chosen to work on St. Michael’s for his experience, but also for his heart. Lead architect Terry White told the Star that Wilcox tugged on the heartstrings of the selection committee by telling them about his grandfather — a man who once repaired stained glass for churches on the west end of Canada. They could see how much continuing that legacy meant to him.
White called Wilcox an alchemist — able to articulate the very chemistry behind each hue. Speaking about his work, Wilcox explains that he uses the same techniques that have always been used to make stained glass.
“These new windows are of the same ancient methods and materials as the existing historic windows, painted and stained leaded mouth-blown antique glass,” he told the Star. He started learning the meticulous old art form in the ’80s, fumbling with glass on his own time before finding the McCauslands.
The Robert McCausland studio is also ingrained in the windows’ history. The glass at St. Michael’s was originally designed by multiple artists at multiple studios in the late 1800s.
Some were N.T. Lyon Co., from Toronto — started by Nathaniel Theodore Lyon, an Irish immigrant to Canada who apprenticed with an older McCausland. Some were Franz Mayer in New York, originally from Munich. And some were designed by the McCausland studio themselves.
The same is true for the towering ecclesiastical windows of St. James Cathedral, just down the street. The handiwork of twelve different artists and studios make up the tapestry of glasswork in its walls, including a single window from 1905 designed by the McCauslands — a window that shines brighter than the rest, due to a proportionally higher use of white glass.
And the pursuit of brightness is important to St. James.
The cathedral has spent $35,000 on its stained glass in the last year alone, to remove a milky outer coating applied in the 1950s. With the coating there, you could only see the vibrant images from inside the church. Without it, you can see the windows’ intricacy from the street. The inside of the cathedral also sees an estimated 30 per cent more light than it did a year ago.
To finish the job on some of their largest windows, they’re looking at another $35,000. They don’t have that money yet. The first half of the job was only possible because of a bequest specifically directed toward church beautification. The work took most of the summer months to complete.
Stained glass restoration is a curious thing, St. James’ property manager Jim Kostifas told the Star. If it’s done right, no one even knows you were there. Nothing will have visibly changed.
But Toronto’s stained glass artists keep working, keep fixing and restoring.
You can see their work on Church St. when the sun goes down, in vibrant images that haven’t been seen from the outside in half a century. You can see it in the details of recreated glass at Mary’s knee in St. Michael’s, in the south nave as the sun rises.
And for a lucky few, you could see the heartfelt impact of their work four years ago, when a father walked the daughter he found by chance down the aisle on her wedding day — at a Baptist church with no stained glass in sight.
“Go figure, huh?” McCausland said. “God moves in mysterious ways.”