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Symbolism at heart of St. Patrick's redo

By Claire Bessette

Publication: The Day

Published March 27. 2013 4:00AM   Updated March 28. 2013 12:20AM
Dana Jensen/The Day
Right, John Canning, principal, of John Canning Studios and Piotr Wirkijowski, left, the firm's art director, and talk Tuesday about Wirkijowski's 20 murals depicting the life of Christ, part of the major renovations taking place at the Cathedral of St. Patrick in Norwich.
Substantial, anonymous donation, new capital campaign funding work on Norwich landmark

Norwich - Parishioners at the Cathedral of St. Patrick were just winding down from Christmas celebrations on Dec. 26 when their historic church itself became encased in its current sort of gift-wrapping. Metal ribbons of scaffolding reach from the newly installed marble floor to the temporary wooden construction platform that obscures the vaulted ceilings some 60 feet above the pews.

The "SPIRIT" project, a combination restoration and renovation of the cathedral, promises to bring back the decorative religious symbolism that is both everywhere in the ornate interior design and hidden from view by decades of drab paint, layer upon layer.

At some point within the past 50 years, the Catholic church turned away from its elaborately ornate iconography and symbolism. SPIRIT will follow a new trend to restore much of that artistry to historic churches. The restoration project began in 2011.

The project also will add new artistic features that will "position" the 1879 church for its long future ahead, Bill Brown, owner of the general contracting firm FW Brown, said Tuesday.

SPIRIT - which stands for Saint Patrick Cathedral Is Restored In Tradition - started with a "very generous" anonymous donation to the Diocese of Norwich to restore the cathedral. Diocesan spokesman Michael Strammiello said both the name and the amount remain confidential, but the person's wishes are being followed to the letter.

Without revealing the total project cost - which remains a moving target - Strammiello said the gift was almost enough for the project that seems to keep growing in scope, like home improvements to an old house. Last month, the cathedral turned to its parishioners, and church leaders have spread the word throughout the expansive Diocese of Norwich that the cathedral has embarked on a capital campaign to close out the project.

Officials are confident the campaign will succeed and said they will keep working in earnest to hold to a schedule that calls for the scaffolding to come down and the gift package to be unwrapped by May 20. An ordination Mass is scheduled for May 25, and a big Mass of Celebration and Thanksgiving for both the restoration and the 60th anniversary of the diocese is scheduled for July 27, Strammiello said.

The Most Rev. Michael R. Cote, bishop of Norwich, has been an unofficial foreman throughout the project, inspecting the work, the colors and the special features.

"The history of the Diocese of Norwich and the even longer history of the Cathedral of St. Patrick is one of strong faith and commitment," Cote said in a written statement. "We are immensely grateful for the generous gift provided anonymously to preserve this magnificent Cathedral. We have been working hard to realize the vision of the donor and to honor the House of the Lord."

Brown, project architect Stephan Nousiopoulos and artists from John Canning & Co. conservation studio in Cheshire have put attention to detail at the heart of the project.

John Canning, principal of the Cheshire firm, walked to a spot on the right side wall inside the church Tuesday. He peeled off a temporary sample border strip of paper to reveal the "historic window" beneath. This is where painting crews carefully pulled away layer after layer of paint to discover the original 1879 stenciled border and wall paint. His team will replicate the dado design.

They already have started hanging "mock-ups" - temporary draft paper designs - to give a hint of the finished product to come.

"We must have peeled away over 25 layers of paint," Canning said. "This gave us the original palette."

He turned to the Stations of the Cross that line the walls of all Catholic churches. At St. Patrick's, the stations are small sculptures placed in alcoves in the walls between the windows. That was what Canning found in the church. But historical photos show that each station should have a frame, giving the scenes prominence and added meaning.

Canning used the framing design in front of the cathedral that surrounds the tabernacle and on the back of the bishop's chair as his guides. Each station now bears a frame in that motif. Soon, they will be painted with the same brown color with gold highlights.

20 painted murals

High above the newly installed marble floor, on the scaffolding platform called "the dance floor," mural artist Piotr Wirkijowski, art director for the Canning firm, is nearly done with one of the SPIRIT project's crown jewels - a series of 20 murals depicting the life of Jesus Christ from the Annunciation of Mary, when Archangel Gabriel tells Mary she will bear God's son, to the Ascension of Christ into Heaven.

Each is painted in the space at the top of one of the pointed arches in the cathedral's vaulted ceiling, roughly 16 feet high and 13 feet wide at the base.

Wirkijowski said he struggled a bit with The Last Supper, opting for a square table with Judas to the right, head turned away from the rest.

One panel not yet installed at the front of the church will be special. Much larger than the others, it will be a surprise design for the Crucifixion of Christ, Canning said.

The artist had a little help with the panel showing Jesus greeting the children. Canning said he was in the hospital recovering from surgery and received cards from the first-graders at St. Patrick's School. In return, he gave the children illustrations of the outline of this mural for them to color. He gave the colored drawings to Wirijowski and said, "Here's your color scheme."

This panel will be dedicated to St. Patrick's School first-graders.

Above the murals, decorative ribbing beams criss-cross to the ceiling's peak. At each intersection is a "boss," each with an iconic, deeply Catholic, symbol. Christ's crown of thorns, the papal tiara, St. Peter's keys, the bishop's crosier, the Sacred Heart, Mary's monogram and the HIS symbol for Jesus.

As with the walls below, these symbols were buried in layers of beige paint. With the renovation, each will be highlighted in color - blue for Mary, yellow for the Papacy and so on.

"I've never seen a church with such perfect Catholic symbolism as in these bosses," Canning said.

But they are 60 feet above the floor, difficult for parishioners to appreciate. Nousiopoulos said one of the modern conveniences added to the renovation will solve that problem. Bright LED lights aimed up toward the ceiling were added to the columns above the statuary designs. Narrow barriers hide the lights from view below, and the LED technology means the lights will remain cool and not damage the surrounding materials.

Nousiopoulos said that throughout the project, he has worked closely with the bishop and with Canning's and Brown's crews to make sure everything comes out right.

"This is one of the most exciting projects I have ever worked on," the Norwich architect said.


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If you give

The Diocese of Norwich has launched a capital campaign to complete funding for the restoration of the Cathedral of St. Patrick. Contributions may be sent to: SPIRIT, Diocese of Norwich, 197 Broadway, Norwich, CT 06360.

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