October 2013

ST. STEPHEN CHURCH RESTORES ART WORK AND
PRESERVES A PIECE OF HISTORY

Reflection on the Art Restoration at St. Stephen Church--Annonymous

Wrapping my fingers around the tarnished brass door pull, I hefted open the stately wood doors.  Shaking hands with the usher I've known for years, I stepped inside and dipped my fingers in the bowl of Holy Water, then moved toward my usual place in St. Stephen's Catholic Church.

Genuflecting, then kneeling in the pew, I gaze heavenward as I settle in and prepare myself for Mass.  Today though, I see something new.

My vantage point isn't different -- no, I've sat in roughly the same place every time I've come to worship here.  But the change is dramatic.  I realize that even though I'm looking at 90-year old paintings gracing the front of the Church, I'm seeing them for the first time.

With colors and details I have never before seen, the 1923 murals and canvas paintings look absolutely, incredibly, unbelievably alive.  Filled with meaning I can only guess at, I marvel at the brightness, the clear lines, the wrinkles in the clothes of the saints depicted on high.

St. Stephen Catholic Church completed the second of a five phase rehabilitation of the murals and paintings gracing the inside of the 109-year-old church this October 25th.  Experts from the Midwest Art Conservation Center restored the mural of St. Stephen's Ascension, six medallion paintings on canvas in the front of the church, and two additional medallion paintings above the choir loft.

Joan Gorman and David Marquis of the Minneapolis center completed the first phase in fall 2011, during which they restored -- and in some cases repainted -- the murals and canvas paintings adorning the walls of the aspe, behind the altar.  Gorman and Marquis returned for phase two.  In a multi-step process, the nationally recognized conservators removed nine decades of accumulated grime from a coal-fired furance, candle smoke, incense, and plain old dust.

Phase one work was intrusive and significant, but in some ways, less noticeable, in part because existing lighting creates shadows that mute some of the restored colors' vibrancy.  The work in phase one required repainting portions of the mural in the aspe, whereas phase two required no repainting.  The conservators applied protective coatings in both instances to preserve the paintings and facilitate future cleanings as well.

"I'm surprised how vibrant the colors are, how vibrant and beautiful," said the Rev. Bob Harren recently.

Fr. Harren specifically referenced the mural of St. Stephen's ascension, taking time to describe the meaning of the mural.  The angel to the left holds a palm frond -- invisible before the restoration -- symbolizing victory, just as palm fronds were used by the faithful to greet Christ on Palm Sunday.  The angel to the right holds A Bible with three rocks resting atop it, representing St. Stephen's death.  Originally thought to be tray, the meaning of the bible and rocks is now clear:  The saint was Christianity's first martyr, who died of stoning for his faith in christ.  In the center, ST> stephen ascends into the golden light of heaven, wearing his red dalmatic, a deacon's garment, over a white alb.

The painter -- named only as "Gosar" from Bethlehem, Penn., in St. Stephen's parish archives -- was most likely John Gosar, a Slovenian-born painter and muralist.

Gosar is described as having been born in 1866 in Laibach, Krain in Austria.  In today's geo-political reality, this is Ljubljana, the capitol of Slovenia, about 36 miles from Spodne Gorje, the city from which many of St. Stephen's original Slovenes emigrated.

A biography of Gosar explains that he trained at the prestigious Academy of Fine Arts in Venice, Italy, and "after completing his studies he became chiefly a painter of churches.  There are many murals in countless churches in germany and Autsria which bear proof of his extraordinary talent."(1)

After coming to the United States in 1903, Gosar traveled widely as something of a celebrity Slovenian church artist, leaving a legacy across much of the northern United States, painting for Slovenian Catholics from  the East Coast to the midwest.  Records of Gosar exist in New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Minnesota, and Canada. Gosar is credited a beautiful mural in St. Mary Magdalene Church in Buffalo, New York, and with painting a mural in Southeast Chicago. (2,3).  This mural in St. George Church followed his work in st. stephen by only one year.

According to the parish archives, gosar's paintings cost $8,000 in 1923, or the equivalent of $106,000 in 2013.  The round medallions were painted on canvas, then glued to the wall.  The work done behind the altar and directly above the sanctuary of the church was painted directly onto the plaster much as Michelangelo had done in the Sistine Chapel in Rome.

In contrast to the original investment in the paintings, restoration work has been relatively inexpensive.  The first phase cost $15,775 in 2011.  The second phase is project to cost $16,170 at the time of publishing.  Church leaders expect phases three through five to cost about $15,000 each as well, and hope to complete the next phase sometime in 2014.

"It will say something about the community's desire to treasure this place of worship...and honor those who have gone before us who built it," Fr. Harren said.  Fr. Harren is quick to recognize the efforts of dozens of volunteers who built the rented scaffolding and removed it during the week of october 21st, and he lauded parish trustees Jerry Mehr and Jim Schumer for advocating vocally in support of this project over the last several years.

What inspired the church to begin this project?  Gorman and Marquis restored artwork within the Great Hall at St. John's University, formerly the monastery's Abbey Church, in 2001.  This work prompted some to consider whether St. Stephen's would benefit from a similar endeavor.  No other work similar to this has taken place in Central Minnesota. 

Careful observers may see two bright white marks on the mural depicting the coronation of St. Mary.  These marks were made by Gorman and Marquis as they tested techniques they will use in phase 3, and represent the drastic difference between "restored" and "unrestored' areas of artwork.

For additional reading, the St. Cloud Times published a story and photos in the newspaper on October 23, 2013, with an accompanying slideshow and short video on its website.  Find it at http://goo.gl/CVA033. 

1 -- Mueller, Jacob.E. "Buffalo and its German Community."  1912.  English translation via http://archivaria.com/BusDbios/BusDbios51.html, accessed 10/27/13.
2 -- "Chicago's Southeast side Cultural Institutions:  A Community of Churches, "  The Museology Class of Washington high school.  No publish date listed.  http://www.neiu.edu/~reseller/cultinstp11.htm, accessed 10/27/13.
3 -- Mueller, Jacob.E. "Buffalo and its German Community." 1912.  English translation via http://archivaria.com/Busdbios/BusDbios51.html,accessed 10/27/13.

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Email: ststephenchurchoffice@gmail.com

Church of St. Stephen

103 Central Avenue South

St. Stephen, MN 56375

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