A glorious restoration brings St. Isidore’s murals back to life

03/10/2016 6:00 AM |

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Years of aging varnish and soot from candle smoke had taken their toll on the once-colorful oil paintings and frescos inside St. Isidore R.C. Church in Polish Town. The vibrant blues of the painted skies had turned nearly black and the images of Catholic religious figures were dark.

But thanks to a month-long restoration effort, the historic paintings — depicting the annunciation to the Virgin Mary, the resurrection of Jesus and an image of “Christ Triumphant” over the earth, surrounded by angels — have been returned to their former glory.

“They’re absolutely gorgeous,” said Georgette Keller, a local historian and longtime church member who serves on its parish council. “It looks so much better.”

The murals were restored and repainted by two Russian artists — Irina Macheeva and Sergey Lukyanov — working for Artisan Restoration Co. of New York City.

“I thought they were going to just retouch it,” said the Rev. Robert Kuznik, now in his seventh year at St. Isidore. “But once they started working on it, they found it was impossible. The clouds, someone had painted them brown. It was dark paint underneath, so they had to redo everything.”

The murals are as old as the 110-year-old church. The original artist is unknown, Father Kuznik said; Ms. Macheeva and Mr. Lukyanov weren’t able to find a signature under the grime.

Father Kuznik checked online resources for religious murals, thinking those at St. Isidore could be copies of more famous artworks. But based on his research, the murals seem to be original.

An artist works to repaint the main mural at St. Isidore. (Credit: Courtesy, Robert Kuznik)

In its earliest days, the church’s recordkeeping was surprisingly lax. No complete plan of the building is known to exist, since Riverhead Town’s historic building records were destroyed in a fire decades ago, Father Kuznik said.

He said the church was founded by poor Polish farmers; fittingly, its namesake is the Catholic patron saint of farmers.

St. Isidore’s earliest worshipers donated much of their earnings to build the church. One family spent $1,500 — the equivalent of nearly $40,000 today — on the altar, Father Kuznik said.

But it’s hard to tell that those who originally built the church were of little means. Early photos of the structure’s interior show elaborate stencil work across the columns and supporting arches above the altar. The walls are painted cinder block, with some edges painted to appear like columns, and the “frames” around the oil paintings are flat — merely painted to appear three-dimensional.

“You take care of your home,” Father Kuznik said. “This is your spiritual home.”

But sometime after the 1950s, more renovations were made to the church and the beautiful artwork was painted over with solid colors. In the 1970s, one pastor suggested making more changes to the church, including cutting away part of the railing that separated the altar from the pews.

Father Kuznik said angry parishioners protested outside the church, demanding that it remain the same.

“Tradition gives you a sense of identity,” he said.

The most recent restoration effort comes six years after St. Isidore’s aluminum exterior was replaced by cedar shakes, as church leaders shift their focus to the interior of the historic sanctuary.

A fundraising campaign was announced Monday aimed at generating $200,000 to refurbish the church’s original pews, repaint the entire interior and replace the flooring and carpeting.

Father Kuznik had hoped to replace the pews entirely, but encountered opposition from some church members. Like their 1970s counterparts, today’s parishioners are connected to the pews, some of which wobble in place.

“They want the ones they sat in [as children],” he said. “For some of these people, this is a point of reference. In America, everything changes very quickly.”

Renovations inside the church are set to begin in June. While the pews are removed and the floor is replaced, Mass will be held at Bishop McGann-Mercy High School, which offered space for services, Father Kuznik said.

Ms. Keller said renovations should be complete in time for fall sacraments. She hopes the fundraising campaign will succeed and said it’s important for those at St. Isidore to preserve and build upon their church’s heritage.

“This is your home,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of people tell me, ‘My grandfather built this church.’ … Now we’ve inherited it. And we have to take care of it.”

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Photo Captions: St. Isidore’s Pastor Robert Kuznik looks at the recently restored mural above the altar. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch); An artist works to repaint the main mural at St. Isidore. (Credit: Courtesy, Robert Kuznik)

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