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Stained Glass Artist Lets The Light Through At Last

Justine Kenin/NPR

Rowan LeCompte's wit and wonder have been on display in the stained glass windows of the Washington National Cathedral for more than half a century. Now, he's working on a final design — one that will bring light to one of the darkest works of his career.

That career started decades ago. LeCompte had the rare experience of finding his life's passion at age 14, when he first saw the cathedral on a visit to Washington, D.C.

He refers to that fateful day as his "second birthday." It was 1939, and the Gothic church wasn't even complete. But the beauty of the stained glass windows gave the Baltimore native's young life new purpose.

LeCompte's first attempts at making stained glass windows involved scrap glass and his mother's gas stove. He followed instructions from library books. At 16, he pitched a design to Philip H. Frohman, the architect for the cathedral, who took it and paid LeCompte $100 "for his troubles."

"It was as if heaven had opened," LeCompte says.

After serving in World War II, LeCompte returned to the cathedral. His first jobs were windows "tucked away in passages and very small." Then, 30 years ago, he was charged with creating all the clerestory-level windows — the highest and most dramatic in the building.

But one window has been a problem from the start. It was the first of the clerestory windows installed, and it quickly received a nickname: the "Black Window."

Planners had originally intended to use windows of varying transparency to create a gradual brightening of light from one end of the cathedral to the other. But when the darkest of the windows was installed on the south side of the nave, visitors were repulsed. The idea was abandoned and the rest of the windows were designed to let in an equal amount of light.

But the Black Window remained — although there were hopes that money would be raised to replace it one day.

That day has come, thanks to "an angel [who] has come from New York," LeCompte says, referring to an anonymous donor funding the new installation.

So LeCompte has returned to his life's work for one last encore. The new window is bright, using lighter colors of glass to match the rest of the windows in the cathedral. LeCompte says this will be the last window he makes — at age 84, he has recently been diagnosed with what he will only refer to as "a difficulty."

But his joy still shines through his work and his twinkling blue eyes. "I think that one should do what one loves," LeCompte says. "You've got to do what you love; it's the only way to do your best."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.