ST. IGNATIUS, Mont. (AP) - All that’s keeping Jesus, Mary and Joseph from falling to the floor in the historic St. Ignatius Mission right now is some cheesecloth and Japanese rice paper.
And it’s going to take a lot more than that to produce a long-term solution to a worsening problem in a 124-year-old church famed for its 58 murals depicting scenes from the Old and New Testaments.
The plaster on which three of the largest frescoes in the mission were painted more than a century ago is cracking and buckling.
Father Andrew Maddock says some of the cracking began in the past two years. The culprit: a sinking sanctuary floor under the altar, parishioner Charlie Freshour says, that was pulling the walls in.
Unfortunately, the solution - stabilizing the sanctuary floor a year ago - worsened the problem.
“They jacked it up too much, too fast, and it buckled the paintings,” Freshour says. The buckling began last spring, and already the plaster holding some of the beautiful religious images painted by Brother Joseph Carignano in the early 1900s has suddenly bowed out by as much as 2 1/2 inches, and fallen off in a couple of spots next to the church’s exterior walls.
“Every day it’s getting worse and worse,” Freshour says.
The parish has quickly exhausted the money in its restoration fund - more than $15,000 - to try to slow the damage.
Now, the mission needs help - lots of it - to make repairs that can save the murals.
They’ve started a page on gofundme.com - search the site for “Restoration St. Ignatius Mission.” If you can’t contribute money, Freshour says they’d love it if you’d share their gofundme information on social media such as Facebook to help spread the word.
“We’re looking for any avenues - ideas, companies that might help us out, we’re asking for any leads to help us,” Freshour says. “We’re interested in people who can help us save the paintings, because they will fall off the wall if we don’t do something.”
Upstairs, on a separate wall behind the murals, you can see some of what’s happening very clearly. The plaster there has cracked itself into a giant jigsaw puzzle. While a few of the cracks were already present, Freshour says most have appeared since the sanctuary floor was stabilized.
On the bright side, “The floor is good and stable now,” Freshour says.
The St. Ignatius Mission is on the National Register of Historic Places, but because it’s an active parish, it can’t qualify for federal funds, according to Freshour.
Neither, she and Father Maddock say, will the church file a lawsuit against the person in charge of stabilizing the sanctuary floor.
“He was just bringing it back to where it was in 1891,” Maddock says. “He tried his best. If he’s at fault, then it’s my fault too.”
The mission caught a break when Father Maddock and his parishioners began searching for experts who could advise them on what they needed to do to save the frescoes.
Nancy Martin of nearby Ravalli contacted the office of U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, seeking help. Tester and his staff quickly put the mission in touch with Evergreene Architectural Arts of New York City and Chicago.
Evergreene’s director of restoration and project manager, Terry VanderWell, just happened to be in Helena doing work on the Montana Capitol, Tester’s office said.
VanderWell drove to St. Ignatius in October. Within two weeks, he had two conservators from New York and Pennsylvania at the mission, and St. Ignatius parishioners had the altar moved and set up 25-foot-tall scaffolding - rented in Spokane - for them to crawl on.
The two conservators assessed the damage and applied the cheesecloth and Japanese rice paper to keep matters from worsening as quickly as they were.
The mission is awaiting Evergreene’s report. With it will come an estimated price tag Maddock and Freshour don’t want to guess at, although Freshour allows, “It will be substantial.”
All of Brother Carignano’s murals were restored between 1985 and 1992 by Polson artist Boyd Jensen after a vandal damaged some of them.
“The conservators said the paintings are in great shape,” Freshour says. “It’s just that the plaster they’re on is separating.”
Most of Carignano’s frescoes - a fresco is a painting done rapidly in watercolor on wet plaster so that the colors penetrate the plaster and become fixed as it dries - are on the mission’s ceiling.
But some of the largest are on the walls behind and next to the altar, and in the dome above it.
The centerpiece is called the three visions of St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the order of Jesuits, and for whom the mission is named.
The middle scene depicts the ordination of Ignatius, with Jesus looking on from the heavens above. To the left, Ignatius is shown in a cave in Manresa envisioning the Blessed Mother and baby Jesus. To the right, Maddock explains, Ignatius meets a cross-bearing Jesus, who tells him, “I want you to take up my cross and follow me.” The Holy Father watches this scene from above.
Nearby, and also damaged, are a painting of Joseph with the baby Jesus, and one of Mary.
Freshour says the cracks extend into the painting in the dome above, of the Last Judgment - one Father Maddock says Carignano modeled after the Disputation of the Sacrament, or Disputa, painted in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican.
“Anywhere there are no pictures, the plaster will probably fall,” Freshour says. “But the murals, we just can’t let fall.”
Amazingly, Brother Carignano - an Italian Jesuit who worked as a cook and handyman at the mission - had no formal training in art. He completed the 58 frescoes when he could take time from his normal duties.
Carignano is also responsible for the paintings on the walls of St. Francis Xavier Church in Missoula.
His elaborate work in the St. Ignatius Mission has drawn hundreds of thousands of visitors who gaze up at scenes depicting everything from the healing of the leper, to the beheading of John the Baptist.
“If we could just get a dollar from everyone who’s ever walked in the doors and said, ‘Wow,’ we’d be in good shape,” Freshour says. “We’ve taken care of them for a long time, but this one is just too big for us alone. We’ve taken care of the emergency, but we’re going to need help for a long-term fix.”
Information from: Missoulian, https://www.missoulian.com
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