As a long time professional decorative artist and exHinsdale and Clarendon Hills resident; it's been suggested that I share some of my art adventures with my old community. I'm still around creating incredible and unique works of art. Despite our difficult economy - I'm still out there saving the world, one mural and trompe-l'oeil at a time. This article is about a wonderful and patient journey a little chapel underwent... And it's path back to beauty.
The Church and Convent in the River North neighborhood of Chicago were built around the 1910's. Both buildings were intricately filled with hand painted art by the German-Polish immigrants from the parish. The walls and ceilings were gloriously hand painted with detailed Euro-flavored art.
In 2009; I was; by an interesting string of odd events, awarded the chance to restore the private Chapel in the now -Rectory of the Parish. The story as it was told to me is.....
...The Parish was constructed around 1910 and just north of the Cathedral was the Convent which could house some 200 nuns. Inside, on the 4th floor was a private Chapel about the size of a high school gymnasium. The windows were beautiful stained glass with the names of the benefactors immortalized in the glass art. The Chapel was filled with hand painted art on the walls and ceiling.
In the 1940's, the convent went vacant and the Parish numbers declined. The Chapel went into disrepair for many years. The windows were painted black and the walls were white-washed (painted over). The chapel became a catch-all storage warehouse for about 40 years.
People forgot...or died......time passed. In the late 1980's the Chapel saw a little restoration with the removal of the black paint from the windows. The chapel then was used as a library and it stayed that way for another 28 yrs. Time passed...the walls aged and cracked, plaster fell here and there and the room once again fell into neglect.
In 1998; under the guidance of Fr. Frank Phillips (http://www.cantius.org/go/about_us/category/parish_staff), the chapel once omore received a little breather. Electricians were changing out these florescent light fixtures on the ceiling and some white paint flicked away. Beneath this thin film of old white-wash paint came this delicate art that seemed to be everywhere on the ceiling. Out of curiousity they chipped away at loose paint in other places and discovered the original design and art throughout the room.
Father Frank's charge at that time to shut the parish down...it was too large and a money drain for the Diocese. However beautiful the main Cathedral was....no one knew about the chapel art. Once Fr. Frank learned of this hidden treasure his plans changed for the life of the parish.
Father Frank saw a greater potential so instead of closing the parish down as he was instructed, he began to restore things, clean up the grounds and bring life back into the Church. Word spread through the Parish...volunteers began to pour in and among these were young men who wanted to join the priesthood and become part of the St. John restoration.
Fr. Frank didn't know what to do about these young workers and volunteers. He called his Bishop for advice. The Bishop told Fr. to continue with his restorative works. He was also given the charge to begin his own Order of Priests - like a small army to continue with his work. The new Order was named: Instaurare Sacra (restoration of the sacred) and the Parish began to grow in attendance. Fr. Frank re-established the high Latin Mass and all of the sacred aspects of Catholicism. This was to be no modern Parish but a role model for the traditional, the time honored masses...the way a Parish used to be run.
I first saw the chapel in the spring of 2008. The parishoners and latin language students were volunteering their weekends to chip away the remaining white paint with hand scrapers and straight edge razors. Revealing section by section - detailed art work from 100+ years ago.
I was commissioned: restore the art as close to the original design. There was only ONE black and white photo of the chapel's front wall art. My work began in April of 2009. I chipped away two small sections of the original plaster wall and took the wall samples to my paint supplier. A spectrograph analysis of the colors was done so that paint formulas were created.
I repaired the large cracks and began the wall art details. My initial impressions of the art was that it was stenciled throughout the room. Closer inspection proved it to be all freehand work. Each small design was slightly different from its adjacent neighbor twin. I carefully matched the colors using artist oils and very slowly began that part of the restoration.
The damaged walls were first skim coated with a light patch plaster and instead of sanding off the excess I would wash the plaster smooth with soft cotton towels. This left the plaster in the damaged recesses and revealed the art ready to be restored. The simplest way was to fix the areas I could 'see' first and build from there. When the ceiling was ready for me and I began the same process...skim coat, wash the areas, fix what I could see and continue to restore.
The gold leaf crosses were color matched and gilded completely instead of just patched in. This guaranteed a perfect color consistency. Three of the eight ceiling icons were redesigned by Fr. Frank after I restored the art. Small changes were made to the design to enhance the message.
There were a few other minor design changes to the Chapel in the process. The largest one was the wood graining of the barrel vaulted plaster ceiling beams. This was my contribution to the project. The ceiling went from timid and plain to rich and elegant. Each monochromatic plaster beam was transformed into the illusion of massive oak beam. It added a European flavor that was missing and the ceiling art seemed to come alive with vibracy.
Looking upward at one of the beams reveals the faux wood grained pattern. The front beam (closest to the altar) received a little more attention. In the center; I added in 24k gold leaf, the words: 'Instaurare Sacra'. The words were positioned so that when you sat in the pews and faced the altar the name of the Order was ever present.
When it was all done I kept looking around the room for the next challenge...the next art problem to tackle but there weren't anymore. I remember sitting in the room and amazed at how far this little chapel had come and in such a short time. It took me 5 months to bring it all back to life and the view was extraordinary.
Finally, the altar arrived and was assembled. Originally from England, it was made of hand carved oak. It was the only altar in existence with the Marriage of Canna and the Last Supper carved in as a relief sculpture on opposing sides of the altar.
I completed the work around the end of October and promised Fr. Frank that I would return near Christmas and add a little final gift from me...a sort of thank you for this wonderful opportunity. I enhanced the communion rail with 24k gold leaf and revealed it's intricate beauty. Merry Christmas St. John Cantius!
It was quite a long journey for this little chapel that went to sleep for 80 years and came back to something even brighter. I last visited the Parish of St. John Cantius in April of this year; 2012...the main Cathedral is under restoration now. It's wonderful to see the beauty restored and I am very proud to have been a small part of it's new life.
The main Cathedral is a wondrous art-filled sight to see in person. I highly recommend to anyone who's in the Chicago area to go and see this amazing and devout Catholic Church., meet Fr. Frank and listen to his story of the 'restoration of the sacred' and the rebirth of St. John Cantius Parish. http://www.cantius.org
Tell him Doug Coggeshall says; 'hello.'