Skylight to Heaven 

Reveling in the details of the restored St. Francis Xavier Church

For more than 50 years, the heavenly scenes painted into the barrel vault of St. Francis Xavier Church shone dimly through a light-absorbing lattice of dull brown. The dun-colored interior paint, applied in 1949, not only robbed the murals of natural light, but also covered all the eye-swimming filigree work Brother Joseph Carignano had painted into the spaces between them. Tendrils of creeping foliage, curving crowns and delicate snowflakes of coral and gold-leaf—all hidden for years under a two-tone coat of blah and bleh.

“It would have been difficult to restore what was there with the limited talent they had on hand,” surmises Jerry McGowan. “And almost impossible to get access to it with the lack of scaffolding. I think they did what they could before they realized it couldn’t be restored the way it needed to be—on an ongoing basis, and with regular maintenance. So what they did was just paint over it.”

Six months of painstaking work by McGowan’s design firm, It’s All By Design, have culminated in a restored vault that the good Brother himself would have been pleased to look upon. And not least because it’s almost exactly the same one that Carignano painted himself, working high above the nave on a stage of rickety scaffolding, over an 18-month period in 1901-02. The eggshell-thin cloud motif scumbled between the curved “kite” panels of the vault seems to mirror the gray winter light outside, exactly as it would have in the first years of the last century. The kites themselves once again race with the crisp foliage of the Brother’s filigree work. And the murals themselves positively pulse with gentle hues.

Brother Carignano painted a total of 66 religious scenes in the church, which opened its doors in 1892. It’s a sweeping visual catechism captured in the vault, the crowned oval murals arching over the cornice, and in the numerous smaller tondos (round paintings) distributed between the art-glass windows and above the Ionic capitals of the arcade columns.

The overall effect, as McGowan notes, is one of a skylight into the firmament. Thanks in great part to McGowan and his partners Kathy Lee and Kathy Solberg, the heavens first envisioned by the late Jesuit brother have been beautifully restored, and just in time for its 100th anniversary.

St. Francis Xavier Church is holding an open house Sunday at 1:30 p.m.

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