Ukrainian Pysanky and the Mystery of Memorial Chapel

People have often said of Lake Junaluska, North Carolina, if a person doesn’t believe in heaven, send them to Lake Junaluska. Just past “Horseshoe Curve,” about three miles east of Waynesville, a beautiful valley framed on all sides by the mountains became the sight of the Southern Assembly of the Methodist Episcopal Church. At the far end of the valley is the eastern end of the Plott Balsam mountain range. The highest mountain to be seen was Junaluska Mountain, named for a famous Cherokee Indian who saved the life of General Andrew Jackson. So, once a lake was constructed at the Assembly, Mount Junaluska seemed to reign over the lake, and the new lake was named Lake Junaluska.

Between 1910 and the early-40s, the Assembly slowly developed into a place for rest, recreation, conference, training, and inspiration. Then, in 1943, the Assembly cottage owners raised $25,000 for a proposed Chapel to honor the men and women who served in World War II. A design was agreed upon, which called for English Gothic architecture made of local granite. The estimated cost of the structure was one hundred thousand dollars, including its stained glass windows.

A letter went out asking local churches to send names of those members who served in the armed forces with a contribution of one dollar per name to raise the necessary funds. These names would then be placed in a Book of Memory that, in turn, would be placed in a separate structure connected to the Chapel called the Room of Memory. The Chapel finally opened on the Fourth of July 1949, while the Room of Memory opened in 1951. Unfortunately, many churches did not send names or money. Other churches sent names but no dollars. Nevertheless, over 90,000 people are listed and honored in The Book of Memory.

There are two mysteries surrounding the Chapel. One is why there is no cup or chalice in the carving of the Last Supper found on the altar. This mystery is left unsolved as far as I know. The other is the meanings of the symbols found in the stained glass windows, which had not been known for more than 65 years following construction. John Hooper took notice of the symbols in 2009 and began asking the staff of Lake Junaluska, retired pastors, visitors, and anyone else who might know of their meanings. But again and again, the same answer came back, “I have no idea.”

He researched Masonic, Native American, and secret Jewish society symbols. Then he contacted the Michigan State University Art Museum’s stained glass repository and an internationally recognized stained glass artist in Scotland. One by one, everyone replied that they did not recognize the symbols. Finally, John discovered a book in the Lake Junaluska Heritage Center repository records by Dr. Charles W. Brock about the construction of the Memorial Chapel. The book attributed the Chapel’s stained glass construction to the shop of Giannini and Hilgart in Chicago. John’s search for the shop of Giannini and Hilgart led to Mr. Lubomyr Stephan Wandzura, a glass painter in the shop, when Giannini and Hilgart received the contract for Memorial Chapel’s stained glass windows.

Inside the Memorial Chapel: the Rose Window is an 8-point star over the altar in the front of the Chapel. There are eight other windows, with three panels each, in the Chapel walls.

The Chicago Tribune described Wandzura as a “stained glass wizard who made saints shine from church windows and art nouveau artifacts sparkle in area homes.” Among these homes are local Frank Lloyd Wright-designed homes. Unfortunately, Mr. Wandzura died in 2000, and the shop had long since closed. Mr. Wandzura’s wife, Oksana, was still alive, but suffered from dementia and did not remember her past. (She passed away in 2015.)

Sometime in 2012, a member of the National Cryptologic Museum in Washington, D.C., included the mystery of the Chapel window symbols in a newsletter. A few days later, Mr. Kent Ramliden of Naples, Florida, emailed John with proof that the symbols came from an art form found in Ukraine called Pysanky. Since Mr. Wandzura’s funeral liturgy was at St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church in Chicago, it now seemed logical that he would have played a role in constructing the windows.

The stained glass artist, Lubomyr Stephan Wandzura, was born in 1928 in Drohobych, Ukraine. His name, Lubomyr, means “lover of peace” in Ukrainian. Over many generations, mothers have taught daughters to write the Ukrainian artform Pysanky. Lubomyr’s mother, Cecilia, had no daughters but recognized talent in her son for all things artistic and encouraged him to write Pysanky. Ukrainians practiced the art at home, in school, and at church, except when Russia occupied Ukraine from World War II until 1991. Pysanky was a religious practice, and the Soviets did not allow any religious tradition. Museum collections were destroyed both by war and by Soviet cadres. As a result, the Pysanky has skipped several generations and mostly survived in other countries, taken there by Ukrainian immigrants.

Lubomyr and his twin brother were abruptly taken from their school classroom in 1944 by a German Army officer and conscripted into the German Army. When the war officially ended in 1945, Lubomyr, his mother, father, and two brothers immigrated to the United States and settled in Chicago. Lubomyr, who adopted the name “Lew,” could speak five languages, but English was not one of them. Finally, in 1948, he found work as a glass painter in the Giannini and Hilgart stained glass shop. And in 1959, he met a beautiful young woman named Oksana, who had recently immigrated with her sister from Ukraine. Lubomyr Wandzura stole Oksana’s heart, and they married in 1961.

The Cross of the Gospel in the Room of Memory is a Greek Cross Pattée with a book in each quadrant representing the four New Testament Gospels. The Pysanky Symbols on this window include, Line: eternity (top right), Mirror Image: life and death (top left), Meander: immortality (top lower right), Mirror Image (below the cross), Sun: life, growth, love (bottom right)

When the order arrived at the shop of Giannini and Hilgart for a job with little or no profit from a location no one knew, Lew jumped at the chance to take the lead. He must have wanted to include his tribute to the American Veterans who freed Europe. It was common practice for the artist who built the windows to install them. Still, if anyone on the Lake Junaluska staff noticed the symbols during installation, there is no record of any conversations or discussions about the presence of the Pysanky symbols.

Twenty-two years after he went to work at Giannini and Hilgart, Lew purchased the company in 1970. Stained glass was his life. He raised his family in the shop. John spoke at length with Lew and Oksana’s children, who told him they never saw the Pysanky symbols used in any other windows. Lew died of cancer on Friday, March 10, 2000. Upon his death, the business was sold to someone who wanted the property, not the stained glass business. As a result, no records of the shop or its work remain.

Photo credit: Ukrainian Easter eggs decorated by New York City-based pysanka artist Sofika Zielyk;

The Ukrainian art form, Pysanky (pronounced “pis-SUN-key”), means “to write.” Each design, or symbol, has a definite meaning.

At one time, the egg was part of the worship of pagan gods. In 988 A.D., when Christianity became the official state religion of Ukraine, the decorating of eggs began to take on a profoundly Christian meaning and were decorated with Pysanky using the wax resist (batik) method. Most of the symbols used on a Pysanky existed before recorded time began, found on cave walls in Europe dating back some 5,000 years. These, and similar symbols, were inserted into the stained glass windows of Memorial Chapel.

Several color combinations are used in Pysanky, each having specific symbolism. Lew used only Black and White symbols in the Chapel and the Room of Memory, symbolizing mourning and respect for the souls of the dead. The Room of Memory is where the artist signed his work on the Cross of Triumph window.

The symbol top left is a modified symbol of Ukraine, upside down,
with the initials L and W inserted for Lubomyr Wandzura.

It seemed a particularly fitting time to tell this story of the stained glass windows of Lake Junaluska, Lubomyr “Lew” Stephan Wandzura, and the Pysanky symbols of Ukraine as the world witnesses firsthand the courage and honor of the Ukrainian people.

A pre-Christian legend regarding the origin of Pysanky describes a monster, the personification of evil, in the Carpathian Mountains; the more pysanky people make, the tighter the chains are wrapped around the monster, keeping it at bay so that it doesn’t destroy the world. Long live Pysanky.


Mystery of Memorial Chapel: Ukrainian Pysanky Symbols in Stained Glass 2016 by John V. Hooper

The Antechamber of Heaven: A History Of Lake Junaluska Assembly 2010 by Bill Lowry, Providence House Publishers

Time, The History Behind the Ukrainian Tradition of Decorating Pysanky Easter Eggs; April 2022


* All photos are my own except where noted.