Just the other day, we had the honor and pleasure of visiting St. David’s Episcopal Church, in Aurora, Illinois, to see various artworks that Edgar Miller designed and installed from 1960-1961, including stained glass windows, a carved wall in the baptistery, and a six-foot Christus Rex sculpture hanging above the altar.
Kate Milliman, the church historian and custodian, was incredibly welcoming. We found a beautiful sunny day to head out on the highway to Aurora, an hour drive from downtown Chicago, to see what we would see. When we arrived in the sleepy suburb, we were struck first by the impression of a town that had once been much further “away” than it might seem today. It is pretty much the last suburb of Chicago before you truly get out into the open expanse of Illinois.
The church, made completely of dark wood and set back from an intersection at Randall Rd. and Illinois Ave., is surrounded by a large property of grass and trees, and then abutting the large lot is a quiet, middle-class neighborhood you would expect to see in a mid-20th century American suburb. We went inside the office door and were immediately met by Mrs. Milliman, a joyful older woman who excitedly called us into the office to say hello to everyone. They were finishing up some church business, so we wandered into the main room of the small church, where the sounds of an organ were wafting through the rafters and empty pews. It turns out the organ player was none other than Mrs. Milliman’s husband.
Finally, Kate came back out from the office and we started to talk “Edgar” in one of the front pews. We brought the Handmade Home to help explain, as briefly as possible, Edgar Miller’s whole story. Needless to say, we talked for almost an hour. Afterwards, Kate helped as we took numerous photos of the church installations and learned about the building’s history.
The church, made of imposing, dark wood, reflected an Anglicized architecture appropriate to an Episcopal order. Tall, vaulted ceilings supported by massive wooden beams brought a monolithic feel to the otherwise Spartan interior. The color was brought in exclusively by the band of Miller-designed rectilinear windows that wrapped around the nave. Unfortunately, we found out that Edgar had only crafted eight of the windows himself before an issue with funding prevented him from completing them, but fortunately at some later point, the designs were completed by another artisan using what appeared to be the design Miller specified. Edgar’s windows were much more detailed: intricately painted with whimsical flourishes and a more complicated glass arrangement. Still, eight intact windows are better than none, and to be fair, the remaining windows were manufactured carefully and with respect to the original design.
Kate also showed us the baptistery, into which Edgar carved an image of St. John the Baptist pouring his holy water over the head of Jesus. It is perhaps not Edgar’s most unique work, but it is still a fine piece of woodcarving.
What is completely unique is the church’s crucified Christus Rex hanging over the altar, which Edgar also carved. Unlike the typical crucifixion image wherein you see a nearly naked Jesus in his historically accurate youth, the Christus Rex shows a clothed Jesus in all his godly glory. In this case, Miller even seemed to combine Jesus with his father into a paternal figure, emphasizing the fundamental nature of the Christian godhead in the Holy Trinity.
The winner of the day had to be the stained glass windows, even though the woodcarvings were good, too. The windows, though, looked just as superb as any of Miller’s stained glass from the 1920s onward. We were so lucky to find Kate to greet us so warmly and let us into the church to learn about their provenance. Thank you Kate!