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When the Heinz Memorial Chapel was built in the 1930s, a committee made a very progressive choice for the time: to depict an equal number of women and men on the building’s most magnificent stained-glass windows.
“I thought that was remarkable,” said Karen Sebolt (pictured above pre-pandemic), the chapel’s director. “To feature women at that time was unusual.”
This March for Women’s History Month, Sebolt will lead free tours of the women featured in Heinz Chapel’s stained glass for anyone with a Pitt ID.
Among these “Women in the Windows” is Elizabeth Fry, a Quaker from England sometimes known as the “angel of prisons.” Fry visited Newgate Prison in London and was horrified by the poor conditions there.
“After the visit, Elizabeth returned with clothing and food for the inmates,” Sebolt said. “She started classes for the inmates and advocated for women and men to be housed separately.”
You can also spot more familiar faces in the glass, like Joan of Arc, Florence Nightingale, English novelist Emily Bronte, American Red Cross founder Clara Barton and other activists and poets.
High at the top of a south transept window is Ruth, a Biblical character who symbolizes loyalty and devotion. According to Andrew W. Mellon Professor and Chair of English Gayle Rogers, Ruth has long been recognized as a model for the woman émigré.
“This likely appealed to Pittsburgh’s history of immigration, which the Cathedral and Nationality Rooms obviously incorporate as well,” he said.
Political theorist Madame de Staël is also featured. Though largely forgotten now, Rogers said, “In the early 20th century, she was seen as a major figure in women’s intellectual history and widely read by intellectuals across Europe and the U.S. well into the 1930s.”
For Assistant Professor of History Alaina Roberts, one of the windows’ women remains her clear favorite: Pocahontas.
“She was an important intermediary between her people, the Powhatan, and British colonists in Virginia,” she said. “Pittsburgh has a rich and complicated colonial history on European-Native American relations, so it is fitting that a Native woman who did so much is depicted at one of our city’s landmarks.”
Heinz Memorial Chapel was funded by condiment magnate H.J. Heinz in his will to honor his mother, Anna Margaretta Heinz. Among the 23 stained-glass windows in the elegant neo-Gothic chapel are four central transept windows, created by artist Charles Connick and standing among the tallest stained-glass windows in the world.
As for why the 1934 committee chose to feature an equal number of women and men, Sebolt has her own theory.
“The committee formed to work on the design of the chapel included Pitt’s first Dean of Women Thyrsa Amos,” she said. “She probably sat there in the meetings and said ‘Let’s do this!’”
karen.sebolt [at] Pitt.edu (Contact Karen Sebolt) to reserve a tour. Tours are free with a Pitt ID, but small paid tours for external guests can also be arranged.
This story was originally published in March 2020 and has been updated.
— Sharon S. Blake and Patrick Monahan