Lighting the Path of Pilgrimage
By: Caroline Rutledge
Mountain Brook Baptist Church has used stained-glass windows in its chapel as “food for thought and inspiration for living” since 1985 (Lewis 73). These windows create a journey that many may not understand at first glance. Inspired by the Psalms, the glasswork leads worshippers on a visual pilgrimage to the temple and into the presence of the Lord. One of these windows, depicting Psalms 42 and 121, shows the pain of this world while giving hope in the power and might of the Lord [Figure 1].
History of Mountain Brook Baptist Church
Located in Mountain Brook, Alabama, on Montevallo Road, Mountain Brook Baptist Church was organized in 1944. It now numbers close to twelve hundred members (Splawn 4). On its website, the church states that its purpose is not to simply be a house of worship but “to make disciples of Jesus Christ who are continually growing in their love for the Lord and increasingly living lives marked by grace and generosity” (“Love”). Since Christmas Eve 1950, the church, originally known as Valley Baptist Church, has worshipped on the corner of Montevallo and Overbrook Roads. (Lewis 6)
The first church building, which is now the chapel, is in the classical American Colonial style. It was designed by architect George P. Turner, who also designed other church buildings throughout Birmingham, including Dawson Memorial Baptist Church (Schorrenberg 56). The rapidly growing congregation soon required a larger worship space. Harold Wagoner designed the sanctuary that was completed in 1967 (Lewis 10; Schorrenberg 57). The original chapel was refurbished in 1970 and had eight stained glass windows, designed by Columcille Sharkey, installed in 1985. Each of these windows helped bring both new light and message in the chapel, while also bringing about a new source of faith for all who lay their eyes upon them.
In honor of the recent seventy-fifth anniversary of the church, Joe Lewis wrote Sacred Spaces and Sacred Story. Lewis, a member of Mountain Brook Baptist Church and “Old Testament scholar, teacher, and author”, wrote the book as a guide to the numerous stained-glass windows throughout the church (Lewis 5).
Stained-Glass Windows of the Chapel
Henry Willet of Willet Stained Glass Studios began outlining the plan for the layout of the church windows in 1966. He called for the creation of glass mosaics held together by grooved lead and reinforced by iron bars anchored into the frame of the windows. The focal points would be in full and rich colors placed on lighter backgrounds to allow for viewers to read and study the pieces (Willet 107). The windows were designed by Columcille Sharkey, who was working for Willet Stained Glass Studios of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Sharkey followed in the footsteps of his father, Edwin Sharkey, who was a glass painter and designer at the D’Ascenzo Studios in Philadelphia. Sharkey later apprenticed under him before working at the Willet Studios. Sharkey’s stained-glass work focused on bringing the images presented in the selected psalms to life in the windows.
Mountain Brook Baptist Church originally planned to place stained-glass windows in its chapel in 1970 but did not have appropriate funding at the time. Plans for the windows had been created by Henry Willet in 1970 but remained in his studio for the next fifteen years. In 1981, Dr. James D. Moebes became pastor of the church following the retirement of Dr. Dotson M. Nelson Jr. (Lewis 90). Moebes brought together the plans for the windows with the funding, eighty-five thousand dollars, provided by Ruel and Margaret Russell in honor of their parents, Mr. and Mrs. W. P. Sims and Mr. and Mrs. Ruel Russell. The dedication took place on June 2, 1985 (Lewis 112).
Psalms 42 and 121 Window
The eight stained glass windows lining the sides of the chapel all contain different verses and images from Psalms. Each window depicts two psalms within the intricate glasswork design that gives the congregation a visual representation of the Lord’s faithfulness in all circumstances. The first window on the east side showcases Psalm 42 and Psalm 121. The first verse of Psalm 42 is displayed on the top of the window, reading “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul thee, O God” (Psalm 42.1). The upper portion of the pane shows a deer, or hart, drinking from a stream. Below is the image of a man praying to God in a way that the psalmist describes as thirsting after the Lord. Psalm 42 is written as a prayer to the Lord by the psalmist, who is longing to go to the temple but cannot for an unknown reason (Rashi 21). As Rashi, a Medieval French rabbi, notes, this first verse specifically talks about the intense longing to be in the presence of the Lord that the psalmist compares to a physical longing to water that all creation feels (22). This passage ends by looking toward the future and trusting “God as the one through whom deliverance” is given (Rashi 30).
The lower portion of the stained-glass window holds the depiction of Psalm 121, a psalm of ascent, that would be recited by the pilgrims at they traveled to the temple in Jerusalem. This window again contains only the first verse, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help” (Lewis 75; Psalm 121.1). This verse goes along with Psalm 42 as it follows the despair of the psalmist in the work above with a renewed hope in the Lord. In this work, Sharkey shows a man on land looking towards the sun coming between the mountains as threatening waters approach. This verse uses the image of mountains as a symbol of refuge and the rising sun as a symbol of the Lord. Rashi’s biblical commentary explains that the “mountains surrounding Jerusalem” suggested the idea of “Yahwah surrounding Israel” (456). For those traveling to Jerusalem, the view of the mountains gives peace. This passage also grants peace to believers around the world today as it creates an image of the Lord coming down to help those who call on him. This window combines the imagery of both verses to create the picture of a desperate soul crying out to the Lord in despair and finding hope amid destruction and pain.
The Psalms 42 and 121 window works along with the seven other windows lining the chapel to depict the pilgrimage to the temple. The lower portion of the window helps Baptists today better understand the pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem. In his biblical commentary on Psalm 121, Rashi describes how the psalm would be “addressed to people going home” (455). The journey of the pilgrimage was the process of the people returning to the place where they could be united with the Lord. The pilgrimage is no longer traveled by Baptists but is understood through the context of the psalms of ascent. By presenting this message in the chapel, Mountain Brook Baptist Church invites those inside to have a personal and intimate connection with the Lord. Lewis notes that the windows created a “special” feeling in the chapel so that churchgoers today “feel this sacred space much as the psalmist felt about the great temple in Jerusalem” (Lewis 73). As one studies each piece individually and then all of them together, the gap between heaven and earth is bridged.
The Mountain Brook Baptist Church chapel holds within its stained-glass windows a unique perspective of the path to the presence of the Lord. The window of Psalms 42 and 121 leads viewers on a pilgrimage to the presence of the Lord by showing the sorrow of the world contrasted with the hope that is found in the power and might of the Lord, in both a physical and emotional representation of the light coming in.
Psalms 42 and 121
Medium: Stained glass
Artist: Columcille Sharkey
Created and Installed: 1985
Location: Mountain Brook Baptist Church, 3631 Montevallo Road, Mountain Brook, AL 35213
Lewis, Joe O., Sacred Space and Sacred Story: A Guide to the Windows of Mountain Brook Baptist Church. Birmingham, Mountain Brook Baptist Church, 2018.
“Love God. Live with Grace and Generosity.” Mountain Brook Baptist Church, mbbc.org/.
Rashi. Rashi’s Commentary on Psalms. The Jewish Publication Society, 2007.
Splawn, Bruce W., Jr. The Body of Christ: Who We Are and How We Should Live; Developing a Deeper Understanding of the Nature of the Church at Mountain Brook Baptist Church, Mountain Brook, Alabama. 2017.
The Bible. Authorized King James Version, Oxford UP, 1998.
Schorrenberg, John M. Walking Tours of Birmingham Churches. 1990.
Willet, Henry. “The Willet Stained Glass Studios to Mountain Brook Baptist Church”. The Willet Stained Glass Studios to Mountain Brook Baptist Church, edited by Joe O. Lewis, Mountain Brook Baptist Church, 2018, pp. 103-108.
Caroline Rutledge ’24 was a student in the first-year seminar on Religious Images in Birmingham (UCCA 102) in Samford University’s Department of Biblical and Religious Studies in Fall 2020.
Published November 3, 2020