Historic Paintings returned to Original Positions in St. Mary's Church

Thursday, April 13, 2017
The two recently restored 400-pound, 16 feet tall by five feet wide paintings finally arrived back to their original placement in St. Mary's Church on March 28 and March 29. On the left is the Jesus Christ at his Resurrection painting and on the right is the Mary at her Assumption into Heaven painting. (Photo contributed)

An innovative crew of men from St. Mary's Parish carried out some tough but historical work in St. Mary's Church on the evenings of March 28 and 29.

The men, positioned strategically on scaffolding, hoisted two 400-pound paintings about 15 feet up the sanctuary walls to hang in the positions they occupied from the summer of 1936 until the spring of 1967.

Ironically, it was 50 springs ago that the paintings were taken down. The only historical evidence for the removal is a note from the St. Mary's Lay Committee and Advisory board minutes of April 24, 1967, which states, "Removing of pictures in sanctuary by church decorators agreed upon."

The project was brainstormed and led by Gary Holzman and Mick Bunkers. Mr. Holzman found a way to build his scaffolding into a tight space where the angled sanctuary walls pinch in toward the intricate and fragile 39-foot tall high altar. The angle required that he devise a system of bolted brackets to firm up the points of contact and to provide a solid unit for the heavy lifting to come. He placed planks along the targeted walls on each level so that those lifting the paintings could be stationed every five feet all the way up. In all, five levels of scaffolding put the top level of workers at about 25 feet above the floor.

Mr. Bunkers devised, built and mounted brackets of wood and iron to ensure that any waves in the old plaster walls would not compromise the mating of the opposite bevels of the plywood edges at the points of contact. The men fastened the brackets to the walls with screws.

To aid in hoisting the paintings into place, Mr. Holzman placed temporary handles on the sides of the paintings. The handles are normally used to lift large windows for installment. When the time came to elevate each painting, about 8 to 10 men positioned themselves strategically on each level of the scaffolding. The men lifted each painting five feet at a time, setting it back down planks before repositioning for the next lift. At the top, the paintings were lifted again, pressed against the walls above the bracket mating points, and lowered into place. Thankfully, both paintings settled strongly and perfectly into place. The roughly 15 feet of beveled-edge mating per painting spreads out the 400 pounds of weight. Mr. Holzman and Mr. Bunkers both expressed their satisfaction with the process and the result.

Brothers Paul and Ken Ahlers led the crews of men to help with the unloading, carrying, lifting, placement, tear down and cleanup. Helpers included Tom Haverkamp, Trevor Schroeder, Chance Jaminet, Dennis Slota, Dan Block, Kyle and Derrick Gengler, Bob Theisen, Jacob Galles, and Dn. Rick Roder. Tony Loutsch helped with the months of brainstorming on how to get the paintings up onto their high perch. Jacob and Matthew Ruba helped carry scaffolding. A scattering of onlookers gathered to watch the historic events.

The paintings are about 16 feet tall and five feet wide. They were lovingly restored by Penny and Russell Christiansen of Neola, Iowa. They were originally painted by Joseph Walter of Dubuque, who re-painted and re-decorated the interior of St. Mary's during the summer of 1936. Walter retired that winter, so his work at St. Mary's represented the last year of his long and regionally-famous career in church decoration and painting.

The north (left) painting depicts Jesus Christ at his Resurrection from the dead. Around him are three angels, one of whom is obvious and the other two more difficult to detect in the sky. The south (right) painting is Mary at her Assumption into Heaven, also graced by three angels. Both paintings had been cut off above the heads and below the feet in 1967, requiring Mrs. Christiansen to incorporate new canvas. She viewed photos to repaint those areas as closely as possible to the originals.

Some have asked why the Mary painting is on the south side of the high altar while her side altar is on the north. The answer comes with a generally understood tradition of church decoration. When pairs of items are displayed, the "dominant" figure is placed on the right (looking out toward the congregation; in this case, looking west). Thus the side altars are a pair; Mary on the right and St. Joseph on the left. The paintings are a pair so Jesus is to be on the right and Mary on the left. Under the crucifix of the high altar are Mary and St. John; Mary on the right and John on the left. Those looking closely at the high altar will note that Sts. Peter and Paul were misplaced after the last church redecoration in 1992. Peter, our first pope, belongs on the right and Paul on the left. They will be switched at the next opportunity.

The entire painting restoration project was approved and facilitated by Fr. Bill McCarthy, who in his 11 years as St. Mary's pastor has made it one of his several missions to restore and improve the church building in its entirety. Many donors have funded the restoration. The cost of the restoration of the Assumption painting has been completely covered. The Resurrection painting awaits the completion of funding through donations and memorials.