Andi Exo watched intently Wednesday as John Clark, of Chicago's Restoric LLC, removed saddle bars from a stained-glass window panel, flooding light into St. Mary's Church through a gaping hole where a depiction of the saint once shone.
"It's been amazing," said Exo, a Restoric employee who flew in from Philadelphia to take part in the stained glass restoration. "The church is beautiful and the windows are irreplaceable. We're trying to be really careful. It's a little nerve-racking."
Across the church, Mark Radina, with Radina Glass Studio in Aurora, Ill., and Neal Vogel, with Restoric LLC in Chicago, gingerly worked on scaffolding to remove another stained-glass panel depicting Mary's life.
"To work on (Munich-style) Zettler stained glass like this has been incredible," said Roseanne Ghazarian, a graduate student in historic preservation at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Unlike other stained-glass panels with smaller pieces of colored glass held in a leaded framework, Munich-style panels are pieces of colored glass with detailed paintings on the surface.
"It's not every day that you get to work on something of this level of quality," Clark said. "And the setting is just absolutely beautiful."
The parish was closed by the Dubuque Archdiocese in 2010, ending 150 years of worship at the German-Catholic church.
Wednesday's work marked part of a restoration effort by The Friends of St. Mary's, a coalition of business and community leaders who last year announced plans to transform the historic campus into apartments, a community center and office, retail and green space.
Dubbed Steeple Square, the project lacks a definitive time line and price tag. However, plans are being finalized to convert the Jackson Street school into 12 two- and three-bedroom apartments, according to historic-preservation consultant Duane Hagerty.
"We are raising money to start that project, hopefully, either by the end of the year or early next year," said Hagerty, the CEO of Heritage Works. "There would be opportunities for all levels of income to live in that building, including some market-rate apartments, but we are not entirely sure what that makeup will be."
Hagerty hopes to begin repairs on the church's steeple by the end of this year or early next year, and will be raising money to complete that project.
The nonprofit organization also received a grant from the Dubuque Racing Association for interior repairs and upgrades to make church bathrooms and an entrance accessible for people with disabilities. Hagerty said those repairs should be completed by next spring.
"We already have people showing an interest in having their wedding here next summer and should be ready to do that once we get all of this interior work done," he said.
Project manager John Gronen, of Gronen Restoration, said he anticipated an announcement in coming weeks with more details and the launch of a public fundraising campaign.
Heritage Works enlisted the help of Four Mounds Foundation and stained-glass conservators to bring in interns, apprentices, graduate students and high school students, using the restoration project to provide vocational training in historic preservation and building trades.
As a result, the nonprofit organization cut what was nearly an $80,000 price tag to replace the two large Gothic windows by more than half, according to Marketing and Operations Manager Rachel Wilberding.
Among the workers was Jacob Stele, 19, of Dubuque. A graduate of the Alternative Learning Center, Stele said he intends to pursue a career in construction.
He said he enjoyed learning the church's history while helping restore its luster and earning certification in stained-glass removal and restoration from Northeast Iowa Community College in the process.
"People like Eagle Window and Door eat that up," he said. "It's just something helpful for right now because I don't know what I want to do."
Chris Olson, executive director of the Four Mounds Foundation, plans to use the church project to build a local "pool of talent" trained in historic restoration.
"We have such a wealth of historic buildings in our community, but the knowledge and skills base (for historic preservation) is fairly small," Olson said.
Restoration work will continue through Monday.