In 1938 the Wollongong Presbyterian community celebrated the opening of the new Saint Andrew’s Church. A stained glass window was donated to the Church in dedication to William and Elizabeth James of Shellharbour with the inscription; ‘I was a stranger and you took me in’ and was followed by ‘In a grateful remembrance of William James of Shellharbour and his wife Elizabeth, who in 1882 befriended the artist and his father’.
The artist behind the window was Polish born Jan Radeski (John Radecki). John Radecki arrived in Australia at the age of 16 on board the ‘Forfarshire’ on 16 January 1882 with his four siblings and parents, Paul and Victoria Radeski. The reason for the family’s migration and settlement in Wollongong is not known. It may have been a job opportunity in one of the local coal mines. However, it is known that travelling with them was Thomas and Charlotte Wearn and their children who also settled in Wollongong.
John Radecki’s family was not wealthy, struggling in the beginning. John and his father had no work. When work became available in Kiama (30km from Wollongong) in one of the quarries, John and his father Paul walked there. They were not lucky, when they got there they found that the jobs had already been taken. Tired and hungry they had to walk back to Wollongong. On the way back, in Dunmore they met Mr Fuller who introduced them to Mr William James who offered them food and overnight shelter. This gesture of kindness stayed in the memory of John Radecki all his life and more than 50 years later he acknowledged the kindness he had experienced from Elizabeth and William James with the stained glass window.
Finally, John and his father Paul found work in one of the Illawarra’s coal mines. Paul worked in the mine for many years, but John only worked in the mine for a year when he left Wollongong in 1883 moving to Sydney to continue his study of art, the study which he had started at the German Art School in Posen. He studied at Sydney’s Mechanics School of Art (later known as Sydney Technical College, Pitt Street) where he further developed his natural talent in drawing.
In 1885 John Radecki was employed by Frederick Ashwin & Co., Stained & Embossed Glass & Works Company, also located in Pitt Street, Sydney. Frederick Ashwin taught John how to work with stained glass, including techniques in glass painting. The two men collaborated in making stained glass windows for various church buildings especially in Sydney and towns in country NSW.
After Frederick Ashwin’s death in 1909, John Radecki with John Ashwin (Frederick’s brother) established their own company, John Ashwin & Co., in Dixon Street, Sydney, where John Radecki was chief designer and co-owner. After John Ashwin’s death in 1919 John Radecki became the owner of the company until his death in 1955.
Radecki has the reputation, of not only being the first Australian trained artist in stained glass, but of being one of the best of his time. Today his artistic work can be seen in various churches including Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney (east rose window); the Navel Chapel, Garden Island, Sydney; Commonwealth Bank, Sydney (the ceiling of the Grand Hall); Mitchell Library, Sydney (Caxton window), and in many churches in country towns across NSW.
John Radecki lived in Wollongong for a very short time but he visited the town very often, not only to see his parents and sister Valentina or take a walk along Wollongong’s beautiful beaches, but also to visit local parishioners and authorities of various Wollongong churches. These Wollongong parishioners and church authorities had commissioned him to design and produce stained glass windows usually to commemorate their loved ones.
Today, three of Wollongong’s church buildings and two in the northern suburbs of Wollongong, have some of the best examples of stained glass windows which were designed by John Radecki and produced by John Ashwin & Co. These stained glass works have both historical and artistic value. The filtered sunlight (depending on the strength of the light – morning or afternoon sun) that comes through purposefully chosen coloured glass contributes to the churches’ unique atmosphere. The stained glass windows can be found in:
- Saint Michael’s Anglican Church, Wollongong has 8 stained glass windows which were produced by John Ashwin & Co. Many of them, like the main three panel Assumption window, were design by John Radecki in 1926. The most splendid window in the church is a two panel piece designed by John in 1935 for Thomas and Charlotte Wearn. The inscription at the bottom of the window reads ‘Arriving on Forfarshire 16 January 1882’ (John Radecki’s and Wearn families shared the journey to Australia). The face of Saint Mary Magdalene from one of the panels resembles Charlotte Wearn’s face.
- Saint Mary’s Star of the Sea Chapel, Wollongong has two stained glass windows which can by identified as being produced by John Ashwin & Co in the 1930s and designed by John Radecki.
- Saint Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Wollongong has a “Good Samaritan” stained glass window dedicated to William and Elizabeth James. The window was the first and only window when the new church opened in 1938. There are now additonal John Ashwin & Co. stained glass windows designed by John Radecki in the church.
- Saint Michael’s Catholic Church, Thirroul has three stained glass windows produced by John Ashwin & Co. Two of the windows were designed by John Radecki; the Holy Family window and a one panel window depicting Christ’s Ascension. This window is different to that of the one at Saint Michael’s in Wollongong as Radecki did not like to repeat his drawings.
- All Saints Anglican Church, Austinmer has one stained glass window from 1934, signed by John Radecki. This window, with four others, was moved from the old church building to the new modern building.
Extract from Migration Heritage Project Research Project ‘Identifying early Illawarra pioneers from diverse cultural backgrounds from settlement to the 1940s’ (funded by the Royal Australian Historical Society, Historical Research and Local Archive Projects NSW Heritage Grants Program, Department of Planning Heritage Branch 2012). Researched and written by Zofia Laba, editors Franca Facci and Fidelia Pontarolo, Migration Heritage Project.
Copyright Migration Heritage Project
1. The NSW Presbyterian, 9 March 1938, ‘Story of a Window’.
2. Handwritten letter by Mrs R. Higman, granddaughter of William James to the Presbyterian Church, Wollongong, Wollongong Library – MSS/310.
3. List of Immigrants per Ship ‘Forfarshire’, 16 January 1882.
4. D. Giedraityte, Stained and Painted Glass in the Sydney Area, c. 1830–1920 (M.A. thesis, Sydney University, 1982).
5. Louise Anemaat, Australian Dictionary of Biography, http://zadb.anu.edu/biography/radecki-john-13164.
6. Information based on own primary research.
Paul and Victoria Radeski
Parents of the First Australian stained glass artist. Arrived Wollongong in 1882 with their 5 children. They had two more children who were born in Wollongong. Paul worked in coal mine, died in 1904. He was the first Polish born person to be buried in Wollongong. Victoria died in 1932.
One of Wollongong’s dressmakers. Arrived in 1882 as 10 years old and lived and died in Wollongong in 1935. She married Walter Carmody and was one of Wollongong’s dressmakers. Her house is still in Keira Street.
Researched by Zofia Laba and Barbara Mazur.
Above image of John Radeski (Trove)