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Cathedral of the Epiphany — The Adoration of the Shepherds Stained Glass Window

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The Adoration of the Shepherds Window, Cathedral of the Epiphany, Sioux City, Iowa, by Mayer & Company, Munich, circa 1900.

The Adoration of the Shepherds Window, Cathedral of the Epiphany, Sioux City, Iowa, by Mayer & Company, Munich, circa 1900. 
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My recent visit to the Cathedral of the Epiphany didn't just fill my CompactFlash chips with beautiful images. It also filled my mind with memories of my childhood.

Always, as I round the bend of Interstate 29 that's bordered by the Big Sioux and the Missouri, the present seems to melt away. And when I take a left on Nebraska Street, I don't see a mostly empty downtown, but the vibrant business hub of my youth.

There was Kresge's, where I bought my first Whitman punch-out paper nativity; Younker's, where I saw my first Santa sitting in a large picture window; and Sioux City Stationery Co., where I discovered the beautiful Augsburg Press Christmas Annual of Literature and Art that I treasure still.

It was 1965, and I was a wide-eyed Greek boy just off the boat, as they say, and Woodrow Wilson Junior High became my second home. I spoke no English, but I could "la, la, la," with the best of them in Mrs. Kott's music class. English wasn't a requiste either in art class, where Mr. Amiotte encouraged me to express myself through art. He had me take off my Greek sandal, place it on my desk, and drawing a few lines on a sheet of paper himself, he indicated what he wanted me to do.

But it was in Room 306, my homeroom, that I really found my mentor. Ms. Chesebro — I still can't call her "Margo" — took me under her wing, becoming my private tutor during sixth period study hall. A sweet, charismatic woman, Ms. Chesebro coached me in the subtleties of English pronunciation, and made sure to send home the lyrics to the Christmas carols we'd be singing, asking my adoptive parent to transliterate them into Greek — so I could "sing" along during Friday assembly.

As I added my voice to an auditorium reverberating with Christmas carols, Ms. Chesebro would look at me and smile approvingly. No one could possibly tell what I was singing, but what did it matter? Ms. Chesebro knew the important thing was to make this young boy in white shirt and black short pants feel like he belonged.

Ms. Chesebro and music have been a part of my life ever since. I can't type a word without headphones on, and as I write these words I'm listening to Pachelbel's Aria Quinta that accompanies The Adoration of the Shepherds video (see top of the page). In fact, my electronic keyboard is placed right above my Qwerty one, handy whenever I want to give my hands a break from long computer sessions. Often, I find myself playing that charming little minuet tune Mrs. Kott's taught me long ago while my computer plays the harpsichord. When I feel like pulling all the stops, I click on Bach's Little Fugue in G minor, and I play the melody while Apple's Logic plays the manuals and pedal, filling the attic with organ music.

A lighted candle perpetually burns before the Cathedral Tabernacle. It holds the blessed sacrament, and features The Epiphany — The Adoration of the Magi — and the archangels Michael and Raphael. 
I wonder what Matthew Gearlings would make of my organ console? Matt is the Director of Music and Liturgy at the Cathedral, and I asked him if it would be possible to share some organ music for The Adoration of the Shepherds video that I was working on. I also gave him the address of The Epiphany Stained Glass window video so he could see what I had in mind.

"Watching the Epiphany Cathedral video," Matt writes, "made me realize how much I take for granted the utter beauty of our Cathedral. One gets complacent, in some respect, when one is surrounded by such holy beauty. Thank you for reminding me of how fortunate I am to work and worship in such a place where the numinous, that "Holy Other," is seen daily in the Cathedral art. I will review my recordings and see what I can find!"

But before I have the chance to hear Matt's recorded music , I hear it live at the Cathedral of the Epiphany. As I take a seat in a pew directly below the choir loft last Sunday, the Cathedral fills with sweet organ music. Matt's hands and feet are flying upstairs at the Wech Orgelbau organ, and I plan to climb the stairs to the choir loft right after the service to meet him. But when I get there, Matt's gone, and soon I find out where he went: just a few blocks away, to the Episcopal Church. "Matt is our organist as well," parishioner Jean Tufty tells me, "and has to rush here for our 10:30 a.m. service. Our church is known for is its choir, and Matt is a big part of the beautiful music here at St. Thomas."

Jean has been decorating the altar for Advent when Ms. Chesebro and I walk in, and is happy to take time to show us St. Thomas' treasures, including the Weare Chapel and its marvelous window of The Nativity, (which I plan to share with you in the future.)

Jean returns to arranging flowers on the altar, and Ms. Chesebro and I walk down the hill to the Cathedral. In the narthex, we stop by a small Gothic window featuring an angel, the symbol of St. John the Evangelist. "Look at that divine face," Ms. Chesebro says. "The wavy hair, the fabric of the gown, the flowers in bloom — it's just magnificent."

The Cathedral marble, copper-and-brass Font, designed by noted Sioux City Architect William L. Steele, 1875-1949. 
We pass by the communion font before entering the sanctuary, and Ms. Chesebro says, "The well-known architect William Steele belonged to this congregation. He was also a member of the choir and the Parish Council. He designed the Court House, and many other buildings in Sioux City, including the Greek Orthodox Church, and this Baptismal Font. Isn't it interesting? His was basically the Prairie Style, and here we have such a beautifully elaborate font."

There are only a couple of lights on in the sancturay, but the Cathedral is filled with soft, multi-colored, ethereal light flooding through the stained glass windows. Is it my imagination, or do they seem even more luminous than the last time I was here?

"Isn't the stained glass glorious?" whispers Ms. Chesebro, seemingly reading my mind. Pointing to the window of The Adoration of the Shepherds she says softly, "Look at the lovely colors, the folds in the Blessed Virgin's gown, her beautiful, peaceful face. That window is one of my favorites. When I was college, I belonged to Sodality, a group of women who are third-degree nuns committed to praying to the Blessed Virgin especially.

"I've been a member of the Cathedral since 1963. It's absolutely beautiful, the most peaceful place that I can be. I do go to other Catholic churches in Sioux City based on my activities at the time, but I never feel quite the same as I do being in the Cathedral. Just look around: you see absolutely, unbelievably gorgeous, beautiful things."

For Ms. Chesebro — who's always endeavored to impart on her students a love of culture as well as proper English — the Cathedral represents not only her deep faith, but her love of art — and music.

"My mother was the church organist in every Catholic church in every town where we lived," she says, leaning close to my ear lest she disturb the peace. "I spent my whole childhood up in the choir loft with my mother. When the choir was not scheduled, many times, when I was a little girl in Sibley, Iowa, there'd be the two of us singing the daily Mass.

"So music is key for me. As I sit here listening to Matt Guerlings who plays so beautifully, I think of my mother playing the organ. She so loved the sound."

We've reached the altar, and Ms. Chesebro looks up. "Isn't the cross spectacular? The shape of the body of Jesus is totally different from most crucifixes."

I almost raise my hand for permission to speak before I say that it reminds me — in fact, it must be — a three-dimensional interpretation of Cimambue's masterpiece in Florence's church of Santa Croce. Ms. Chesebro smiles. "That's right!" she says, and her eyes sparkle in approval, the way they did in eighth grade.

"Look at The Nativity Window right now. The way the light is streaming in? I must say that I look at that window often." Then she looks to the right, towards the Shrine of our Lady of Guadalupe that's lighted by flickering candles. "Another thing from childhood," she says, "is that we would always light candles. The Cathedral is the only Catholic church in Sioux City where you can light a candle.

A caring teacher and Cathedral parishioner — Ms. Margo Chesebro. 
She looks at The Adoration of the Shepherds window again. "The Nativity represents a new beginning," she says, standing next to a pew on the third row from the altar. "This is where I sit, so I don't have people in front of me — usually.

"It almost feels like I'm in here by myself. Mass, of course, is supposed to be communal, and the Cathedral is usually full. But, sometimes, I feel all alone. Listening to the organ music and praying, I feel transported."

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