The team of conservators from the Midwest Art Conservation Center works on the final steps of the altar restoration at the Chapel of Saint Mary of the Angels.
Chief Conservator Megan Emery led the team’s five-day restoration of the chapel’s mosaic ceiling, altar and stained glass.
by NATHANIEL NELSON
The Chapel of Saint Mary of the Angels in Winona will soon have a new face to show the public after a team from the Midwest Art Conservation Center (MACC) finished their restoration on the altar this past week.
In a five-day session, conservationists from MACC worked diligently to clean and restore the famed mosaic ceiling and marble altar of the chapel as the six-month project came to an end. The restoration project is one of the largest performed on the Saint Mary’s University-owned chapel since its creation in the early 1920s.
Construction on the chapel began in 1924 as part of the College of Saint Teresa. Designed by architect C.H. Johnston, the building was based on a small chapel in lower Assisi, which is where the church gets its name. The design incorporates massive stained-glass windows depicting the hierarchy of the angels, an intricate mosaic ceiling, exquisite marble sculptures and a copper domed altar, along with countless other pieces of Christian iconography and timeless architectural artwork.
While the building was not completed until the late 1950s, the mosaic ceiling and altar had been completed for some time and the chapel had already been in use for a number of years.
Over the course of its life, the artwork in the main chapel of the Saint Teresa campus began to degrade. Saint Teresa was powered by coal, and over the years the coal began to darken the previously luminous glass and sculpture work. While there was very little actual damage to the building, the altar had seen better days.
Bob Kierlin, co-founder of the Hiawatha Education Foundation, recalled seeing an image of the ceiling in a postcard.
“I collect postcards, and I had a colored one that showed the chapel’s ceiling before all the soot and coal. You could tell the difference immediately,” he recalled.
Kierlin worked with members of Saint Mary’s and MACC to make the restoration project a reality. According to Kierlin, the effort goes back to 1991, when the Hiawatha Education Foundation purchased the Saint Teresa Campus.
In the early ‘90s, amidst the sale and renovations of many of the Saint Teresa buildings, Kierlin said he and his wife, Mary Burrichter, knew the chapel needed to be preserved and restored to its former glory, but the method eluded them.
“We didn’t know how to preserve it, and thought for years about what to do,” Kierlin said.
According to Kierlin, during his years of collecting artwork, he met conservators who he thought might know what to do. In March this year, the time came for the restoration to get moving.
Several members of the Midwest Art Conservation Center were visiting Winona for an event at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum when Kierlin asked them for their thoughts.
“I asked them to take a look at the chapel and come up with some idea of what can be done. Megan Emery stayed down overnight and looked at the mosaics and altar, and came up with a plan,” Kierlin explained.
Emery is the chief conservator and senior objects conservator for MACC, which is a Minneapolis-based nonprofit conservation lab specializing in the restoration and revitalization of classic art.
Emery was the lead on the project from the beginning. According to Emery, the chapel work was much larger than most of the projects on which the center had worked. The majority of the center’s work revolves around individual pieces, including paintings, sculptures and textiles brought to the lab for restoration.
“Most of our members have different specialties, including textiles, objects, painting, and paper. We also have technicians who are in the process of going to grad school, so the process is a good educational opportunity,” Emery said.
Due to the scale of the project, planning started immediately. The first step was the survey, where conservators examined the building to see what the damage was and what would be needed to complete the restoration. For large-scale projects, Emery said, that can prove difficult.
“You can look at one small section to understand the basis, but you have to see the whole thing to get the full picture. And you can’t do that until you’re up there,” Emery said, scrubbing away at a pillar.
After the survey, the main two focuses of the project were determined — the cleaning of the mosaic ceiling and the central marble altar. Originally, the plan was to do these steps in stages, with each taking a week, but eventually the plan shifted to fit both steps into the same timeframe.
“Normally, we do this with a team of about two or four people and in a longer time, but for this project, we needed more people and less time,” Emery explained.
Several months went into gathering information and equipment for the restoration before the actual cleaning began. A scaffolding was built earlier this month and then the conservators came in and got to work the following week. Each of the two aspects needed to be approached differently, Emery said, with the mosaics and glass being cleaned differently than the copper and marble of the altar, but the process for both was relatively similar.
First, the conservators vacuumed the loose dirt before taking large sponges and cleaning off the surfaces. From there, they used smaller sponges to clean the finer details before doing a wet clean to finish it off.
“Our goal is always to do what is necessary to preserve it, stabilize it, and keep it as close to the original look as possible,” Emery explained.
The process went off without a hitch, Emery said, with both parts finishing in time for the weekend. Now, the chapel gleams just as it did at the beginning, and will continue to shine into the future.