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Work underway to save historic paintings

By Karen Peterson             Valley Journal

ST. IGNATIUS – Repairs to save historic murals in the St. Ignatius Mission have begun – just when it started to look like they couldn’t wait much longer. 

The walls seem grand when you first step through the doors and look at the 58 hand-painted biblical scenes, but a closer inspection reveals a surface of cracks, and in some places, the bones of the church are visible.

Father Craig Hightower, S.J. brought in an expert historical restoration team with Custom Plaster from Boise, Idaho to work on the project starting on July 22. Photos can soon be seen on their website along with other projects they’ve done. The team seeks to have the first phase of the restoration project done before winter.

“Only a couple companies can do this kind of work,” Hightower said. “This company has won awards and is very focused on the details.” 

Fundraising, donations, and grants have helped bring in enough money to get started on the first phase of the project, estimated to cost $229,000. One of the fundraising endeavors included a musical concert at the church in January that brought donations totaling around $45,000. 

“We are grateful to the community, Catholic and non-Catholic, for helping to save this beautiful piece of heritage,” Hightower said.

Fundraising efforts continue in order to complete repairs to the rest of the church. The entire project is estimated to cost around $750,000. 

The walls with the greatest damage are being worked on first including the two paintings on the farthest sides of the east wall in front of the pews. Hightower said the painting being repaired on the left is of the Blessed Mother, and the painting on the right is of St. Joseph. On the opposite side of the church, at the highest inside point of the west wall, more damage is being repaired. 

Greg Marsters, owner of Custom Plaster, did an original analysis on the building and found places where the plaster would “flap” when any pressure was applied to it, and spots where the plaster buckled outward.

First, the cracks on the paintings were secured with a mesh-style Band-Aid. The plaster on the wall behind the two front paintings was removed, which was easily accessed through the rooms behind the paintings.

With the inside of the wall visible from the backside, an adhesive mixture was injected into the wall to fill the space where the plaster on the front side of the wall had separated. The gap measured an inch to three inches in some places. A system of vinyl washers and screws will help pull the frame and the plaster back together. 

A section of the wall where it joins with the ceiling on the west side is currently under construction to repair another area. Scaffolding was set in place under the damage so the crew could reach it.  

Marsters said his team is very cautious with what they consider priceless artwork. The idea is to preserve the “historic fabric” of the work, which includes the original work and its foundation. He said if anything needs replaced, they try to use the same type of materials used in the original project. Finding good quality wood cut into specific small pieces has been a challenge. Getting lime plaster was another issue.

Marsters broke open a piece of the original plaster, and to his trained eyes, it looked like bison hair. He plans to find out if the fiber used to reinforce the material was from bison. Church documents say local materials were used in the construction of the church, so bison hair could be part of the church’s history. 

Once the walls are stabilized, Marsters plans to use a removable protective sealant on the paintings and oil paints to restore them to their original condition. He said the paint he plans to use will also be removable. In another 100 years, when technology has improved even more, another restoration crew can remove his work and do more repairs if needed.

“They will be able to test the work and know we were here even without written records and remove what we’ve added, if necessary,” he said. 

Construction on the church started in 1891 and took several years to complete. Over the past 100 plus years, earthquakes and sediment shifting have caused the church walls to shift. The church moved again when the back wall was lifted to repair it. The floor near the entrance at the back of the church is still visibly sloped. The movement caused the wall paintings to crack.

Italian Jesuit Brother Joseph Carignano created the paintings in the early twentieth century. He was said to have spent many years as a cook and handyman in the church. Marsters said a close look at the artist’s brush strokes show that he had talent. 

Marsters, who said he’s worked on various historic restoration projects around the country, was amazed at the amount of people continually visiting the church including tourists and locals.

“People come in to see the church and others come in to pray,” he said. “Our goal is to make it stronger so it will last.”

Father Hightower said signs will be put up in the church to explain why the scaffolding is set up and how the work is done. Parishioners are also organizing a project to allow people to adopt one of the 100-year-old pews still in use in the church in order to restore them to their original state. More information about adopting a pew and donating to the restoration project can be found at stignatiusmission.org.  

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