Boston chaplain, photographer brighten Christmas for troops

BOSTON — Two men living a world apart, who have never even met face to face, will be responsible for brightening this Christmas season for troops worldwide.

U.S. Air Force chaplain Father Timothy Butler, a priest of the Boston Archdiocese currently serving a four-month tour of duty on Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan, and stained glass window photographer P. Neil Ralley have collaborated to develop a system to liven the stark worship spaces normally used by troops overseas. The system will allow over 100 images of stained glass windows to be projected onto the wall of tents, hangers, ship’s chapels — virtually any facility in which troops will celebrate Christmas services.

“With Neil’s great images and technical know-how and my field experience and connections, we were a perfect match for the project,” explained Father Butler in an e-mail interview with The Pilot.

“The idea for the visual presentation was entirely Father Butler’s,” said Ralley, speaking via telephone from his home in Verona, N.J. “He was certainly the one with the vision of what this project was to be.”

“What prompted me [is that] we are living in field conditions on Manas Air Kyrgyzstan. ‘Field conditions’ means we all live and work in tents,” said Father Butler. “Everything in our camp is tan and gray.”

Manas Air Base is a strategic hub for U.S. military personnel and equipment flowing in and out of Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

With the Christmas season approaching, Father Butler began to “think of a way to create a sense of sacred space” inside these “relatively bare” tents used for worship.

“Stained glass windows are so colorful and ethereal. I figured these might work well,” he recalled.

Working with little more than a digital video projector normally used to show recreational movies, he began to search the Internet for usable images of stained glass windows. In his search, he stumbled across Ralley’s Web site, www.stainedglassphoto

“Of all the Web sites I came across, [Ralley’s] had the best selection and quality of images,” stated Father Butler.

According to Father Butler, he first downloaded one image “as a trial.”

Impressed by the beauty of the image, but wanting not to infringe on any copyrights, he contacted Ralley and asked to use the pictures in creating a slide show of the stained glass windows to “set a mood” for troops entering Christmas midnight Mass. Father Butler hoped he might also be able to use a single image as a continuously projected background throughout the Mass.

“I had a Nativity triptych in mind,” Father Butler stated. “I hoped this would create a sense of the sacred in our spartan environment.”

Ralley not only gave permission for Father Butler to use any of the images on his Web site, he offered to create the slide show himself.

“Neil was wonderful,” declared Father Butler. “He said it would be an honor to help make the Christmas liturgies more special for our troops over here.”

With the promise of a more festive Christmas liturgy, Father Butler began to realize many other chaplains throughout Iraq and Afghanistan might wish to use the stained glass images. According to Father Butler, digital projectors like the one he will use are provided to chaplains assigned to bases and posts — whether in tents or more permanent facilities — as well as ships.

Consequently, Ralley has posted a slide show program containing the images on his Web site for military chaplains anywhere in the world to download. The page is limited to those with special access. For his part, Father Butler has spread access information to numerous chaplains throughout the Afghan and Iraqi theaters of operations.

“Many are asking to use it,” Father Butler stated. “My expectation is that many will.”

Ralley hopes the show, which lasts approximately half an hour, “will brighten up the otherwise spartan places of worship for our soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen during Christmas services.”