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Windows into the soul

Nick Parrendo's devout nature shines through in works of art that grace hundreds if houses of worship

Sunday, July 30, 2000

For 50 years now, Nick Parrendo has worked for God.


That's how long the North Side native has been employed at Hunt Stained Glass Studios, where he's designed thousands of windows for God's houses of every kind, all over the region and beyond.

It seems there's not a town or neighborhood where he doesn't have windows. If anyone could tell him the exact number, he might react with his favorite exclamation:


But that's not the legacy that most concerns him.

Parrendo puts much more than his artistic talents into these wondrous glass creations, which have earned him honors from the Stained Glass Association of America as well as the Roman Catholic Church.

It would mean more to him to know that a window gave someone a "lift," as he calls it. His aim: "To give a person that sense of loving God, that you're caught up."

His own spirituality is as deep and as colorful and as illuminating as his art, and is an integral part of it. His long career is just part of what he calls his "spiritual journey" -- one that started with his conversations with God when he was just a boy.

They didn't exactly hit it off at the start.

"Get me out of here!" Parrendo remembers thinking on his first day at North Catholic High School, when he was given detention for going to lunch without stopping first at homeroom for prayer.

He'd been advised to go to Catholic school by Father Eddie. The Rev. Edward Farina was the priest at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, a one-time Lutheran church that the Italians in that part of Woods Run bought so they'd have their own neighborhood Catholic church. It became a center of the life of their community, including the Parrendo family.

Nick's father, Anthony, had emigrated from Calabria in 1917. He was a mechanic for the Pennsylvania Railroad but never rose above the title of "helper" because he couldn't read or write. Nick's mother's family had come from Abruzzi and lived in a house in Highwood Cemetery, where her dad was caretaker. Rose Fratangelo was, in fact, born in the cemetery, before they moved to Hall Street.

Anthony was 40 and Rose 15 when they married and settled on nearby Mitchell Street. Nicholas was born July 3, 1928.

When you listen to Nick Parrendo -- a slight, soft-spoken, Mister Rogers of a man with lively eyes magnified behind silver-rimmed bifocals -- tell his story, it's hard to believe him when he says, "I was a bad kid." He nods. "I used to beat the hell out of kids in the first grade, third grade. I was in trouble all the time. God said, 'No, no, we'll have no more of this.' "

  Nick Parrendo's half-century career at Hunt Stained Glass Studios is imbued with tradition and spirituality. Here, hands smudged with drawing charcoal, he searches for a passage he would like to illustrate in a Bible that he was given by James Hunt, whose father founded the studio in 1906. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

At age 10, Nick started having stomach pains so severe that he couldn't eat. Doctors couldn't figure out why. He missed most of sixth grade in Children's Hospital. That's where, encouraged by a nurse, he started drawing. That's also where he started to know God.

"They were going to operate, and I prayed that they didn't have to," he says. Turned out, they didn't; he had bleeding ulcers that healed with treatment. But the fear stayed with him. "So I ran to God."

He tried hard to be good, frequently turning for help to the church and to Father Eddie, who took him under his wing.

By the time Nick reached high school, he was a quiet, keep-mostly-to-himself lad who was known for his artistic ability. "That's all I could do is draw."

That's why in 1948, after he graduated and served a year and a half in the U.S. Army as a clerk typist at an Alaskan base, he came back to Pittsburgh and enrolled, through the G.I. Bill, in the Ad-Art Studio School, Downtown.

He wasn't sure about advertising art or his classes. "I went back to Father Eddie and said, 'We're seeing a live model. You know, a nude model.' He says, 'That's part of the job.' "

Parrendo needed a part-time job, so Father Eddie offered the opportunity to clean four classrooms at the church each night and wash and wax the floors each Saturday. Parrendo whistled while he swept.

After cleaning the blackboards, he'd draw on them, to the delight of students. He'd paint backdrops for school plays. This ability earned him the task of touching up the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, which he did on a scaffold at 2 a.m. in the silent church. "I thought, 'Just you and me, Lord.' "

Someone else was about to enter the picture.

Her name was Emmanuela Strange (pronounced strahn-JAY).

Parrendo met her, the parish May Queen, at the Our Lady of Perpetual Help bowling league.

" 'Boy, is she nice,' " he recalls thinking. "Even the way she threw the ball. Everything about her. ... I thought, 'This girl is really too good for me.' "

No one owned a car, so they'd walk home, wearing their matching blue bowling cardigans with "PH" in gold letters on the pockets.

"First time I kissed her, I was up in the clouds. Wow!" he adds in a reverent whisper. "Then she says, 'I can't see you anymore.' "

Her parents had decided that, at 21, he was too young for Luella (as she wrote her name), who was 25. His parents had to go talk to them. When they smoothed that out, Nick realized, whoa, he had to think about marriage.

He'd told her he'd never marry an Italian girl. "It's too much like marrying your sister." She'd said she'd never marry an Italian guy.

They got engaged at Christmas in 1949.

But to get married, he needed a job.

Luella had a good one, as a pay clerk at Dun & Bradstreet. But he wasn't even going to be finished with art school until June.

Father Eddie came to the rescue again: "He says, 'Go see Hunt. He wants to get young blood into the business.' "

This was George Hunt, of Henry Hunt Studios, a stained-glass shop then on Wabash Street in the West End. Henry was his father, who'd learned the craft from his father in England before coming here in 1890. He opened the studio in 1906. His oldest son, George, with his brother, Jim, built it into one of Pittsburgh's premier purveyors of stained glass during what was a boom time for church building.

Though George Hunt was Episcopalian, he did work mostly for Catholic churches, including Perpetual Help's mother church, Regina Coeli (Queen of Heaven) in Manchester.

That was what Parrendo knew about stained glass: He'd seen it.

So he was "damned scared" when he went to the studio to ask Mr. Hunt for a job.

The big man told him, "You finish school and then you come back and see me."

Parrendo literally prayed that he'd be hired: "Gee, God, I don't know why you wouldn't give me this job, because I'll be doing work for you."

That spring, he'd meet Luella Downtown and walk hand in hand with her to St. Mary Church, where on nine Tuesdays they prayed a novena to St. Martha.

"When we got the job," he says with a smile, "we went back nine Tuesdays to say thank you."

They were married on Oct. 14, 1950, by Father Eddie, whose black shoes Parrendo had borrowed for the occasion.

They were one of seven couples who married from the PH bowling league.

  One of Parrendo's most recent projects is the windows at St. Bonaventure Church in Shaler, which he based on the writings of St. Bonaventure. The Rev. George Newmeyer says that after the new church was dedicated last year, Parrendo thanked the parish -- for leading him to the writings. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

Parrendo's first day at Hunt Studios was June 12, 1950. As an apprentice, he earned 75 cents an hour to do whatever he was told -- cement widows, paint glass, fire it in the kiln. He was so inexperienced that he was afraid to go to the bathroom. But he worked hard and fast.

In those days, the studio employed 24 people. Two designers made window drawings, which were sent out to be enlarged into full-size color "cartoons" from which the glass cutters and assemblers worked. Because the enlargements would be distorted, features like faces had to be redrawn.

Parrendo made his mark, and saved the time and expense of enlargements, by drawing the cartoons completely by hand.

It wasn't long before he was drawing his own designs.

He loved it from the start, when he used to talk with designer Helen Carew about creativity. " 'Isn't it amazing what people can make? But God makes people.' I'll never forget when we talked about that."

In short order, he had many mouths to feed, as he and Luella had their first two children in 2 1/2 years. Their second son they named Eddie, for their priest.

He still marvels at his wife's role as mother of flesh-and-blood children. He's often said, "I only do this out of glass."He's so utterly humble that he wouldn't take credit for being so -- and feels self-conscious being the subject of a newspaper profile.

Here's his synopsis of his career as a designer: "There were three of us in the '50s. In the '60s, there were two of us. I just stayed long enough that I was the only one left."

The studio, which Hunt moved to its present location at 1756 W. Carson St. in 1951, was bought by J.R. Lally in 1966. When Lally died and it went up for sale for the second time in 1987, Parrendo "sweated it" for a long time before deciding to take the plunge -- mortgaging his house -- and buy it.

His beloved wife had died of leukemia in 1981. But you might not know it, the way he still sometimes talks about her in present tense and with feeling that is unabashedly passionate.

His friend Paul Kosmach, who started at Hunt Studios three years after Parrendo did and worked there as a cutter until retiring a few years ago, remembers how hard her death was for Parrendo. "He'd go bowling after she died, and he'd say, 'This was Luella's ball.' He used it whether it fit him or not.' "

Because of his loving, gentle ways, Kosmach says, "I thought he was a saint," and he still does.

They had their disagreements, but Kosmach thought he was a fine boss, if not the best businessman. "If something cost $400, he'd give [the client] $600 worth of work." He laughs. "We always complained about him, because we wanted to make more money for the company and more money in my pocket!"

But his attitude attracted more clients, Kosmach adds, and that's why the firm prospered, even if that wasn't his main concern.

"It's a channel for him to do good for somebody, no matter price, no matter cost," Kosmach says. "It's just the way he is."

"He's genuine," adds another longtime friend, Art Innamorato. "He's determined to do what he wants do. Especially when it comes to his work and his faith, you can't sway him off it."

And you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who is more devout, Innamorato says. "He knows the liturgy to the point where, my God, I'm embarrassed!"

His buddies sometimes tease him. "He'll turn anything into religion," says Kosmach, who tells how recently, on one of their regular golf outings, Parrendo spotted a ball washer with a towel draped over it. "He said, 'Doesn't that look like a Madonna?' I said, 'You're getting way out, Nick.' "

But they appreciate how caring and giving he is. Ross Madia, who sang in the Perpetual Help choir with him back in the 1950s, says he often visits the sick, even staying in touch with his kindergarten teacher until she died. "He was my inspiration to improve my spiritual life."

Parrendo isn't this way just from years of working with religion; it's also from years of living it.

These days, he starts every morning at his church -- now St. Cyril of Alexandria on Brighton Road -- where he not only attends the 7:30 Mass, but also helps conduct it by reading and leading the hymns. He also helps lead a centering prayer group there, organizes retreats and, according to his pastor, the Rev. Tom Ferris, does "anything that you ask of him."

Parrendo still works six days a week, as well.

His oldest son, David, manages the business, which employs David's wife and four other people. Nick Parrendo's daughter, Celeste, a muralist -- she does sets for Pittsburgh CLO and other arts groups and painted the ceiling of the Austrian Nationality Room at the University of Pittsburgh -- sometimes works at the studio, too. Son Eddie, an architectural engineer, still lives at home with his dad in Brighton Heights. Son John is a professional country fiddler, and he, too, lives not far away.

Hunt Studios -- motto: 'We'd Love to Serve" -- continues to do everything from design and installation of new stained- and etched-glass windows to repair and restoration of old ones, as well as murals and sculpture. The sculpting, mostly of religious figures, is a self-taught sidelight that Parrendo was put up to by -- who else? -- Father Eddie. In the '70s, he commissioned Nick to craft Stations of the Cross.

"I thought, gee, this is pretty nice, working in three dimensions," says the man who still doesn't consider himself a real artist.

The studio, a brick former automotive garage that sits beside a junkyard in the shadow of the West End Bridge, is a funky mess of a building that feels more appropriate to the turn of the last century than to this one. Indeed, the tools of the trade, including the reference books, even some of the furniture seem like museum pieces. And yet it all comes to life in the rainbow colors of glass, which fills vertical wooden bins and drawers, and sparkles in the windows.

Parrendo mostly works in his cozy second-floor design studio, which has a fine view of the Point. Hanging in one of the windows is the last photo of his entire family together, which he encased in decorative glass. The walls are cluttered with charcoal sketches and other mementos, including the original typed novena to St. Martha that he's sure got him the job.

Testimony to just how long ago that was is stacked against the first-floor ceiling in the form of the rolled-up cartoons from every design job going back nearly a century. Each has a reference number.

When he started at Hunt, the studio was on job No. 1,800 or so. Now, it's up to No. 7,559. And many of the jobs are for multiple windows. "So you think, how many jobs have we had?" says Parrendo, who can hardly believe it himself.

The studio just installed two windows for Hope Lutheran Church in Forest Hills, the last pieces in a job that began in 1968. He's been around long enough now to see older Hunt windows come back for restoration -- including one he designed that the customer unwittingly referred to as "this antique."

His windows grace hundreds of houses of worship of nearly every faith, not to mention uncounted homes, businesses and other places. But he's more prone to talk about his wife and children than his progeny of glass. When asked about the Stained Glass Association "Lifetime Achievement Award" he received last year, he says that's "like getting an award for breathing."

Asked about his favorite windows, Parrendo says, "There are a few of them that are nice." Off the top of his head, he mentions the 70-foot-wide window walls at St. Thomas More in Bethel Park; the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill; First Presbyterian in Greenville; and so on. Indeed, as a recent profile in the Pittsburgh Catholic newspaper put it, "His work is everywhere."

The jobs that stand out for him are the ones from which he got "enlightenment," spiritual or otherwise. For instance, he'll never forget working at St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Shadyside back in the 1958, because the pastor told him to draw Christ with less severity and more smiling -- something he's tended to do since.

The creative process, he says, is "always a relationship you develop, between you and the Creator and the people you're working for."

What's most important to him is the meaning of the message or theme that he tries to convey.

"I always feel if the Spirit is really working through you, something should come out of that window that explains what it's about."

But it's not just divine inspiration without perspiration. Parrendo is known as an expert on religious symbolism and imagery, and what he doesn't know, he researches.

When the Rev. George Newmeyer's St. Bonaventure parish in Shaler told Parrendo that they wanted the main windows behind the altar to reflect their patron saint, the artist started reading St. Bonaventure's writings and became deeply inspired.

"It became a labor of love," says Newmeyer, who doesn't even know the whole story of what Parrendo did. As he read about the seven steps by which sweetness of love is attained through the reception of the Holy Spirit -- inflaming desire, uplifting rapture, and so on -- he pondered how the steps applied not only to his own relationship with God, but also to his relationship with his wife.

"I started reading and said, 'Holy cow, this is what you should have!' " recalls Parrendo, who followed the steps from he and Luella's first kiss through their last.

He wound up creating a fabulously intricate main window, 13 feet high by 9 feet wide, into which he worked symbols for each step, such as flames for inflaming desire and a sheaf of wheat and cup for uplifting rapture.

Since the new church opened in April 1999, so many parishioners asked about the window's meaning that, for the church's feast-day celebration two weekends ago, Parrendo created cards with a descriptive key on the back.

He didn't send a bill for that.

Nor does he for the cards he designs and donates to Mom's House and other organizations.

"It's not work, it's a vocation," says Newmeyer, who adds, "Nick is person of very deep faith, and it comes through."

Even his competitors can see that. Kirk Weaver, a past president of the Stained Glass Association who formerly worked for his family's Pittsburgh Stained Glass Studios and now is with Stained Glass Resources, has called Parrendo a profound influence on his career "for the emotion and feeling that he pours into his work."

Parrendo wound up making other windows for St. Bonaventure, including side windows that subtly incorporate the saint's "mystical vine." He also crafted the ceramic "anointing stones" that hang on each of the four walls, designed the painted Christ on the processional cross and now is making from glass a baptismal bowl and Lady of Guadalupe icon.

"I just see Nick as a very multitalented person and, at the same time, absolutely humble, absolutely unpretentious, and ... very able and interested in working for others," says the Rev. Eric Diskin, director of the Worship Office of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. One of the projects on which he worked with Parrendo was the processional cross used by Bishop Donald Wuerl.

The church for which Parrendo is so honored to work honored him when he was chosen as one of three local artists to attend February's Jubilee Celebration for Artists in Rome. There, he joined artists from all over the world in having an audience with John Paul II, who urged them to "live profoundly the reality of your Christian faith, so that it will give birth to culture and offer the world newepiphanies of the divine beauty reflected in creation" -- to "practice the wonderful art of holiness."

That's what Parrendo has been doing for a half-century and counting. He feels he's simply exercising a talent that's been given to him.

"I think my father's is more than a talent, I think it's special gift," says his daughter Celeste, who accompanied him on the Italy trip.

As usual, Parrendo was looking forward to coming home and going back to the studio.

"He has such a passionate love for what he does," she says, recalling how he always is taking sketches and ideas home to work on. Even when he was in the hospital about to undergo triple-bypass surgery last year, he was going over plans for St. Bonaventure.

His work, his life, his family and friends, his spirituality -- "They just are interwoven," she says. "Intertwined."

Which brings us back, though we've never left it, to the spiritual journey of Nick Parrendo.

He thinks and talks about that a lot, dwelling sometimes on his missteps, but always exuberant about another opportunity to try to do something good.

Hitting his 50th anniversary, after his heart surgery and the black-out at the studio that preceded it, has him thinking about his own mortality ("I'm almost getting to the point now where, wow, I don't have that much more time!") But he doesn't plan to ever retire from the studio.

"I'd just like to be found here someday," he says, not morbidly, but with a sense of peace that seems to pervade his being.

Every morning, he wakes up and says a prayer: "Oh Lord, I offer you everything this day ..."

Then he gets back to work.

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