Conservators uncover beauty, surprises in St. Stephen church

Categories: Around the Diocese

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David Marquis from Midwest Art Conservation Center in Minneapolis works on filling losses — areas where paint has been chipped — on a mural in St. Stephen Church in St. Stephen Oct. 14. Photo by Dianne Towalski/The Visitor

By Kristi Anderson
The Visitor

Jim Schumer has admired the paintings that grace the walls and ceiling of St. Stephen Church in St. Stephen his whole life. A native of the small town just northwest of Sartell, he attended church there as a child and, as an adult, made his home on a dairy farm just minutes down the road. Now he serves as one of the parish’s trustees.

When Schumer’s son-in-law, Shane Hoefer, was attending St. John’s University in Collegeville in 2001, art conservators worked to restore artwork in the Great Hall on the campus. This sparked an interest in Schumer to possibly have similar work done at his parish, where years of coal-furnace soot were taking a toll on the church’s artwork.

He approached his pastor, Father Bob Harren, who then contacted St. John’s and was given the name of the conservators, Midwest Art Conservation Center in Minneapolis. After years of consideration and planning, St. Stephen’s began the first of four phases in 2011 to clean and restore the paintings in the church.

Subsequent phases occurred in 2012 and 2013. Last week, phase four — which consisted of the conservation of five ceiling murals depicting the life of Mary — was completed.

History

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Scaffolding put up by parishioners for the restoration project. Photo by Dianne Towalski/The Visitsor

The St. Stephen Church was built in 1903 under the direction of Father John Trobec. Twenty years later, according to the parish archives, a painter named Gosar from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was invited to “dress up” the church.
Hoefer, who researched Gosar, determined that the artist was most likely John Gosar, a Slovenian-born painter and muralist. Local lore has it that Gosar painted round pieces of canvas called medallions outside the church under a shade tree and then brought them in and affixed them to the walls and ceilings. The latter, at least, proved to be true — the nails are still visible at close range.

Schumer, who watched the progress daily, noticed a few surprises during the restoration. On one of the medallions, angels that hadn’t been visible for years were uncovered when layers of coal furnace soot were removed.
“In the Nativity scene, now there is bright blue sky and there are stars in there,” Schumer said. “I didn’t know they were even there.”

According to the parish archives, the paintings originally cost $8,000. Today, they are valued at over $100,000, Father Harren said.

Parish funds were used for the first three phases of the restoration ranging in price from $10,000 to $17,000 and the fourth and largest phase is estimated to cost $48,000.

A community effort

“It has really been a community effort,” Schumer said.

About 30 parishioners showed up on Sunday, Oct. 11, after Mass to set up the impressive amount of scaffolding that took about five hours to install. That project was led by one of the parishioners who owns a local roofing company. Another parishioner, a local electrician, is helping with the repair and rewiring of the church’s chandeliers.

“Church has always meant a lot to us,” Schumer said. “There’s a lot of family history here and we need to preserve it. This is a beautiful church and we want it to be around for the next generation.”

Kristy Jeffcoat, one of the five conservators from Midwest Art Conservation Center who came for this final phase, said she could tell how well the church was historically cared for. In their evaluation, the conservators performed numerous tests using different types of light, cleaning tests and evaluating what the issues were.

“Everything is in really good condition,” she said, “which is surprising for their age. They have really taken care of the building and the paintings. It is remarkable how strong this community is, and that is why they are in such good condition.”

Jeffcoat and the rest of the team began the process with dry cleaning that took about two hours to complete, then used a solvent to clean the medallions, which took an additional 10 hours. Then began the “cosmetic phase” which Jeffcoat explained as correcting some minimal flaking, filling in any losses and then inpainting, a process of reconstructing deteriorated parts. Last, the team assessed the gloss level and applied a protective coat to even out and saturate the colors.

“After all the restoration is complete, we document everything through photography and written reports so that if anything happens to it through time, it will be documented so people can see what we used. And it’s all reversible,” Jeffcoat explained.

At the weekend Masses following the restoration, Father Harren took the opportunity to explain the five medallions — Mary, Light of the World, the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Ascension of Mary and the Coronation of Mary in Heaven.

“I am delighted to see this happen,” Father Harren said, “because it helps bring out the original purpose of the paintings which was to help people grow in faith by seeing the example of the saints and Gospel stories depicted in these scenes.”