Beauty Restored to Historic Church

By By B. Gunar Gruenke
Published in ADOREMUS BULLETIN VOL. XV NO. 3 – May 2009

St. Francis Xavier Church is the oldest church in Indiana.  Located in Vincennes, this church is also referred to as the “Old Cathedral” – and for good reason!  The founding congregation dates back to 1732, when Indiana was still a territory.  The present house of worship was built in 1826.  By the year 1834, St. Francis Xavier Church was named a cathedral.

Regrettably, over the years, the decorative scheme of this early cathedral was modified, and as a result, the beauty of its original structure was masked.

Recently, the church underwent restoration (at a cost of approximately $1 million) to address structural elements and bring back its original charm.  Under the direction of Father Schipp and local Architect Bud Erny, Conrad Schmitt Studios (CSS) was commissioned the task of decorative restoration.

Conrad Schmitt Studios staff began the project with an on-site visit to investigate and examine the existing conditions of the entire structure.  Immediate observations were as follows: the canvas on the walls was curling and peeling; the hand-carved, central vaulted ceiling was buckling and had gaps in between each board; and wood lathe and coffers were shifting and sagging.

These problems are not uncommon in historically significant structures.  Often times, the conditions listed above are a result of temperature and humidity fluctuations that cause wood and other structural materials to expand and contract.  The result of these weather conditions on the foundation, then, causes the canvas or other interior wall surface material that is attached to it to also stretch and shrink.  Ultimately resulting is curling and peeling canvas.  Another cause for these problems would be the structural nature of the wood.  Years of moisture, temperature changes, and age cause it to deteriorate, buckle, shift, and sag.

CSS collected historic research about the cathedral.  Historic photographs that depict the Cathedral’s original decorative scheme, for instance, are a great help in putting all of the pieces of the puzzle together.  Staff also met with elderly parishioners to discuss the church’s appearance in the past.

Following the initial on-site survey, CSS began a historic paint investigation.  The first step in any paint investigation is collecting paint samples from the walls and ceilings for analysis.  This specific investigation took an interesting turn when CSS staff detected the original decorative scheme beneath the canvas in the crypt and studied exposure windows in the area.  Upon finding this hidden treasure, all layers of paint covering the original décor were carefully peeled away so as not to harm the original treatment.  The goal was to identify and, eventually, restore the original patterns, colors and surface appearance.

At this point, CSS could move from historic paint investigation to design analysis.  In other words, CSS staff began creating tracings from the original decorative treatments on clear Mylar and compiling them into a comprehensive report.  This design report allows staff to interpret the original sequence of stencil applications and techniques used for application.

Information from the investigation, analysis, and research led CSS to conclude that the original 1826 scheme was much more decorative than the existing décor in 2006.  With all of the information gained, the Studio was able to provide appropriate suggestions, planning, and designs for the work at hand.

After completion of the planning and design phases, restoration work began.  Artists began by removing the peeling canvas from the walls and ceilings.  When the canvas was removed, millions of tacks that kept it in place were exposed.  The tacks were removed and the holes were patched before the canvas was replaced.  Luckily, before replacement, the conservators detected that some hand-crafted wall angles were deeper than others.  Though this situation often poses a problem when creating the canvas to cover the wood, foreseeing the problem allowed them to overcome the obstacle and successfully replace the canvas.

Next, the design analysis was put to use.  To ensure quality replication, new stencils were applied on canvas at Conrad Schmitt Studios’ New Berlin, WI location and shipped to the church for future installation.

The next focus was the proper repair of the damaged ceiling.  Repair options were as follows: repair with plaster; glue new canvas on top of the existing ceiling; or fiberglass it.  Engineers discussed these options and decided the following: a combination of fiberglass and canvas would provide the best result.

Before fiberglassing the ceiling, the Muslin was removed and the shifting and sagging coffer noticed during the initial on-site observation was repaired.  Walls in the cathedral were washed, and wood surfaces were scraped and patched.  The fiberglass was bonded to the ceiling, and the new canvas was attached.

After the repairs were complete, artists painted the interior walls with a faux decorative stone finish.  Artists also painted a faux wood-grain on the lower wainscot panels to resemble the original design.  The columns were marbleized, and capitals were gilded with 23 KT gold.

But the walls and ceilings were not the only visual hindrances that CSS set out to restore.  The 1904 altar, for instance, which had glass panels on its front and back side, needed major work as well.  CSS had to repair and redecorate the figures that sculpted the “Last Supper.” In addition, the wood base of the altar was decoratively painted to resemble mahogany, white Italian marble was placed on top of the altar, and a portion of the structure was re-gilded.

Another task was to conserve the three large apse murals and the Stations of the Cross that were seriously darkened from decades of environmental air pollution and candle soot.  The 1883 Stations of the Cross were originally painted in Paris by Bouasse Lebel, and the frames were carved by Indiana local Frederick Rentz.  Well known murals in the cathedral, painted by Wilhelm Laprecht, include a mural of the Crucifixion, St. Francis Xavier, and the Madonna and Child with the patron saints of the four bishops of Vincennes.  CSS labored to save these priceless surfaces by meticulously cleaning the images in order to conserve and brighten the images and their true garment colors.

The cathedral crypt is famous because the first four bishops of Vincennes were laid to rest inside of it.  These bishops were: Simon Bruté (1834-1839), Celestine de la Hailandière (1839-1847), John Stephen Bazin (1847-1848), and Maurice de St. Palais (1849-1877).  Above Bishop Bruté's grave is a carved statue of the Virgin Mary, brought from France in 1838.

Three statues frame the entrance of the crypt: St. Patrick, St. Francis Xavier, and St. Joanne D'Arc.  It was of great honor for staff of CSS to repair the crypt via plaster and wood repairs, mural restoration, and re-painting.

Conrad Schmitt Studios also repainted two vestibules and patched and restored some areas of the balcony’s ceiling.  Other renovations included installing a new heating system, gutters, floors, steps, electrical wiring, rebuilding of the light fixtures and more.

Though the process of restoring St. Francis Xavier Church was tedious, with many hours spent investigating, analyzing, planning, and completing, a moment’s glance at a finished project can make you believe that you have traveled in time, years and years to the past, and are witnessing the church’s original dedication.

Referring to this spectacular cathedral as the “old cathedral” is no longer fitting.   It may be the oldest church in Indiana, but surely one of the very finest.


B. Gunar Gruenke is President and Master Craftsperson at Conrad Schmitt Studios in New Berlin, Wisconsin.  Conrad Schmitt Studios is an internationally recognized art studio specializing in various techniques and procedures including the investigation and documentation of original decorative schemes, gilding, glazing, marbleizing, and stenciling as well as the new design, replication or conservation of stained glass and murals since 1889.  He also serves as President of the Stained Glass Association of America (SGAA), Director of the SGAA Stained Glass School, Director of the Western Great Lakes Chapter of the Association for Preservation Technology (APT) and as an APT International Board Member.

Tell us about your next Project