Stained glass window in Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas. Taken August 7, 2007.

How It Works: Cleaning Sacred Spaces

Sacred spaces across St. Thomas’ campus are used in many different ways, bringing people together in celebration of Mass or through individual prayer. While a lot of emphasis is placed on the spiritual importance of these spaces, also critical is the physical presence.

Time, consideration and care were put into the design of the sacred spaces – and those same elements are put into making sure these places are well-maintained for a long time to come.

Chris Labadie, assistant director of liturgy in Campus Ministry, sat down to share some of the work that goes into maintaining the chapels on campus.

“You clean a sacred space just as you would any other space, but with the understanding that it should be done respectfully and reverently,” Labadie said. “You would not want to clean while a Mass or other liturgy is being celebrated, and you would want to be respectful of anyone who might be praying on their own.”

He noted that the staff from Facilities Management does a lot of the broad cleaning (usually before the 7 a.m. Mass), while he and his student workers do a lot of the detailed work in the chapels, such as dusting, washing linens and cleaning objects used during Mass.

For many of these objects, the space between conservation and cleaning becomes thin.

“We want to be able to pass everything down through the years,” Labadie said, noting that one of the oldest pieces St. Thomas has, in Florance Chapel, is a crucifixion scene with a statue of John and a statue of Mary that dates back to the 14th century. “You look at some of the oldest churches in the world, and they have things from the first, second and third centuries. One of the goals is to maintain the chapel items, so that they’re around for centuries.”

That means a lot of items made of precious materials such as gold and silver vessels and objects made of brass are washed by hand with mild cleaners, soap and water. In the same vein of preservation, marble sanctuary floors and altars are dry swept more often than mopped, so the stone isn’t chipped or damaged in any way.

Stained glass isn’t unique to the chapels, but certainly is a prominent part of them; regular cleaning is either done by Facilities Management or out-of-house companies. The stained glass windows can need restoration work, which might be required if there’s a chip in the glass, if an area has become damaged or discolored, or if the lead in between the glass needs to be redone.

A company in the Twin Cities works with St. Thomas to restore the stained glass, Labadie said. Depending on the nature of the work, the company can either come into the space and fix the stained glass or, particularly in the case of re-leading the window, may take the entire piece with them.

“The curators of the university do a good job of making sure all the artwork through the entire university is taken care of, and that includes our stained glass,” Labadie said.