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If You Gild It, They Will Come — Spotlight on St. Peter's in Volo

Updated: Feb 23

The Canons Regular of St. John Cantius are typically only associated with St. John Cantius Parish in Chicago. After all, it is where the community, now numbering almost 30 members, was founded and calls home. Both the canons and the parish have gained international notoriety for a number of reasons. Fr. C. Frank Philips, CR, beloved pastor emeritus, not only founded the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius, he also facilitated a great revival in the the parish. Under his leadership the parish grew from 50 parishioners on a Sunday to 3,000 registered families. Fr. Phillips restored the church spiritually and physically to the gem that many today are fortunate to call their spiritual home.


Only a portion of the community serves at St. John Cantius at any given time. The other canons staff two additional parishes, St. Katharine Drexel in Springfield, Illinois, and St. Peter’s in Volo, Illinois.



THE CANONS REGULAR AT ST. PETER’S IN VOLO, IL

In 2007 the canons were asked to assume the pastoral care of St. Peter’s in Volo, Illinois, a parish situated in Lake County, on the very edge of the Archdiocese of Chicago. The assignment came from Francis Cardinal George, OMI, who was instrumental in the founding of the Canons Regular. When the request came, the community had just hit its first milestone of 10 members. Interestingly, their arrival at St. Peter’s relieved the retiring Fr. Don Dietz, OMI who was Cardinal George’s novice master when he joined the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.


Divine Providence had its hand in the timing. Following their community’s charism of Restoring the Sacred, the canons have labored to renew St. Peter’s parish both spiritually and physically.

RESTORATION OF THE SACRED

The restoration of the sacred begins first with one’s own personal call to holiness. That personal restoration of the sacred in each canon affects the parishes they serve. The spirituality of the canons is evident in their pastoral zeal and careful execution of the Church’s liturgy and sacraments in all their fullness.


Since their arrival, the canons have increased the number of registered parishioners at St. Peter’s from 300 to 1100 families. The spiritual renewal of the parish brings together a growing community of souls that fill six parish Masses each weekend in a church designed to seat only 190.


It is important that the Restoration of the Sacred also be expressed physically in the art that adorns church buildings. As humans, we require tangible signs and symbols to understand the infinite majesty of the God whom we worship.


Structurally, this is what St. Peter’s has done for 100 years. Now it is important to continue and strengthen that same tradition so that it can be passed on to future generations. This renewal of the parish can be particularly noticed in the recent and ongoing physical restoration of the church. St. Peter’s is in its final stages of completing renovations, well ahead of the church’s 100th anniversary celebration in 2025. Fr. Nathan Caswell, SJC, parish pastor since 2020, enthusiastically notes, “We’re ready and excited for the next 100 years!”



RENOVATION OF THE BELL TOWER

The initial phase of the church renovation began with the restoration of the bell tower in 2018 by then-pastor, Fr. Anthony Rice, SJC. Damaged by lightning in the 1950s the tower became too unstable to hold the heavy brass bell, so it was removed and placed on display at the entrance to the church. After the structural reinforcement of the tower was completed, the bell was returned to its rightful place where it now calls new generations of worshipers to St. Peter’s.



REPAIRS TO THE CHURCH EXTERIOR

As with any century-old building, leaks began to develop in the roof and exterior walls of the church. The accumulation of moisture led to extensive water damage of the plaster walls in the interior of the church. Not only was the plaster discolored, and developing cracks, chunks of plaster actually began to fall from the ceiling, requiring urgent attention. Water leakage had also compromised the stability of the stained glass windows when the wooden bases and frames began to rot.


The first step to repair the aging building was to fix the roof so that it no longer leaked. This involved replacing all the flashing and damaged roof tiles. Then the entire church exterior was tuck-pointed to ensure that condensation could no longer seep through the brick facade. After that skilled craftsmen were enlisted to repair, and replace the plaster in the affected areas.



Once the building was sealed up properly, and the plaster was repaired, the parish needed to make decisions about what to do with the interior walls and ceiling. While many churches had made considerable changes in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, the integrity of the original layout and ornamentation remained intact at St. Peter’s. The sanctuary, transepts, and nave contained orphrey and scroll work stenciling that dated back to its beginnings. With new plaster replacing the damaged areas, the parish had to decide whether to replicate the original ornamentation, or take the opportunity to transform the interior with new artwork.


The families of many of the current St. Peter’s parishioners go back generations, even to those who first built the church in 1926. Their sacrifices and hard work needed to be honored and respected as part of the rich patrimony of the parish. At the same time, the current generation of parishioners wanted to make their contribution and become a part of its living history.

After much discussion It was agreed that this was an opportunity to enhance what was already a beautiful church. As Father Nathan put it, “We saw this opportunity not so much as a renovation, but a renewal.” The plan for the repainting of the church was not to restore the church interior exactly as it once was, but to bring its existing beauty to greater prominence. After all, tradition isn’t stale antiquarianism. Nor is it living in the past, or longing for a bygone era. Traditio means bringing the past forward; or handing on the past to future generations. Tradition invites the past to be a dynamic participant in the present. It’s what theologians call a hermeneutic of continuity.


WALLS AND CEILINGS

Because the church’s original physical layout and furnishings were largely left intact from when the building was first constructed, required renovations would only affect the floors, ceilings, and walls of the sanctuary and nave. Repainting and re-gilding the walls and ceilings would be done in such a way as to make a visual separation between the sanctuary, and the nave and transepts. Refurbishment of the space would also integrate and harmonize recent additions of statues into the overall architecture of the church.



After preparing the plaster walls, attention was turned to the details of the new artwork that would be painted. It was important to find ecclesiastical artists with the talent, experience, and vision, to complete the interior in a way that respected the Catholic heritage of the parish and could bring it forward to the present. The committee immediately began looking for artists with these qualities.

Choosing an artist is like entering into a new relationship. Artists aren’t simply hired. Artists and their patrons have traditionally formed a symbiotic relationship based on shared values and a common vision.

Mr. Slawek Miskow, an artist from Poland was chosen to create artwork for the walls and ceilings of the sanctuary and nave. Miskow and his team were discovered through a parishioner who had commissioned him for a private chapel in their home.



Then Mrs. Ellen Ryan was chosen to restore the two murals above the side altars in the transepts depicting the Annunciation, and The Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. Not only is Mrs. Ryan a long-standing parishioner of St. Peter’s, she was a finalist out of 400 competitors in The Catholic Art Institute’s competition.



PAINTING TECHNIQUES

Miskow’s artistic approach is grounded in the ancient traditions of iconographers who often apply colors in layers. The medallions or vesicles on the sanctuary ceiling contain images of Christ and the four Evangelists. Darker colors serve as a base, and lighter colors are then layered on top as the images and designs take on depth and definition. The lightest colors are applied last, as highlights, which show the light of Christ who illuminates those who are redeemed by God.



The original walls and ceiling of the church contained beautifully stenciled designs and orphreys that included gold-leafed crosses on a neutral-colored background. The goal of the restoration was to incorporate the original style with the addition of greater contrast and depth creating a stronger visual separation to express the theological difference between sanctuary and nave. The final renderings show influences of the famous 19th-century English Neo-Gothic revivalist, A.W.N. Pugin who masterfully incorporated a mix of primary colors in his art and architecture.



NAVE AND TRANSEPT CEILING

Part of the patrimony of our rich heritage as Catholics is understanding that symbolism abounds and is present everywhere. This is particularly true in the choice of colors. The transformation of the nave ceiling was achieved by applying a blue background adorned with gold stars. Blue not only references the sky and heaven but symbolizes Our Lady’s purity. Blue is also the symbolic color of Byzantine royalty, which is only fitting for Our Lady as the Mother of God, who is empress and queen of heaven and earth. Stenciled on the blue background are stars in gold leaf which represent the original twelve stars that adorned Our Lady’s crown. These stars are mentioned in the Book of Revelation when describing a vision of Our Lady in Chapter 12. The twelve stars symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel in the Old Testament, and the twelve Apostles in the New Testament thus showing the unity between the Old and New Testaments.



THE SANCTUARY

The sanctuary ceiling is completely covered in raised gold leaf with red accents symbolizing “heaven on earth” or the “holy of holies” from Jewish temple worship. It is where the uncreated, eternal God dwells on earth and encounters his creation.


Gilding, or the application of gold leaf, is common in older churches, but it is rare to see it done today. Even more unique, and unusual is the technique of applying raised plaster to a surface before painting or gilding. This stenciling method was the finish that Mishko incorporated in the sanctuary dome to give the ceiling greater depth and texture. The application of gold leaf further accentuates the raised scroll work in the way that it interacts with light



The sanctuary walls are painted red with stenciled gold-leafed crosses and fleur de lis representing Our Lord Jesus Christ and Our Lady. Red symbolizes martyrdom, but also God’s divinity and redemptive power through the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross. It is a most fitting color for the sanctuary since it is here that the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is united to the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross offered for the redemption of the whole world.

Scrolled in Latin across the sanctuary of the Church is the quote from Sacred Scripture in the Gospel of Matthew: Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam. In English, You are Peter, and upon this rock, I will build my church, which is a reference to the parish patron saint.



NAVE AND TRANSEPT WALLS

The new artwork for the nave of the church further creates the visual separation from the sanctuary. The nave (which includes the transept) represents the created earth where humanity meets God through authentic worship in Holy Mass. Touches of green are appropriately used in the nave of the church to represent life-giving creation.

THE STATUES

Parishioners over the years have increasingly expressed their devotion to St. Anne, the mother of Mary, and St. Therese. Small statues were placed in the church to promote devotion to these two beloved saints. The renewal of the church’s interior was seen as an occasion to harmonize these recent additions into the overall design. At the same time, it would give them new prominence.

The two small statues were replaced by larger four foot statues and placed on pedestals mounted on the left side of the transept. Statues of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and St. Anthony were also placed on pedestals and mounted on the wall of the right side of the transept. The pedestals not only give greater prominence and honor to these saints, but they also economize much-needed floor space for worshipers.


WINDOWS

The stained glass windows themselves thankfully didn’t require restoration. However, due to water damage, the wood frames, particularly the bases in which they are mounted and secured to the walls, needed to be replaced. A major part of the church’s restoration allocations were dedicated to ensuring that these windows were stabilized and secured to ensure that they would pass along the faith to future generations.


FLOORING

The renovation of the church also brought attention to the original terrazzo flooring in the vestibule and sanctuary, and the aging linoleum flooring of the nave.

This is the current piece of the renovation in process. The original terrazzo floors of the sanctuary, vestibule, and baptistry will be able to be retained. Terrazzo floors are remarkably durable being made of marble chips set in concrete and ground to a smooth finish. They will only require the stripping off of old layers of sealant and polish, filling cracks, and then resealing and polishing to complete the restoration.

The original linoleum floors in the nave thankfully don’t contain any asbestos but will still require replacement. Linoleum was a common, inexpensive material used in many ecclesiastical edifices built around the same time. Since linoleum generally requires substantial maintenance, it was decided to replace the floor of the nave with more durable and resilient travertine marble. Given the high volume of traffic St. Peter’s enjoys, marble flooring was a logical choice. The marble surface will also contribute to better church acoustics that will enhance authentic Catholic worship because it will allow for greater reverberation.


FUNDING

Divine Providence has clearly again spoken because the renovations have been fully funded. Parishes typically spend thousands of dollars in consulting fees before initiating a capital campaign for a major restoration of church buildings. St. Peter’s posted a simple need for renovation funds in their weekly parish bulletin. After only a year, they had collected the necessary $500,000 from parishioners to begin work. This is certainly a tribute to the generosity of the parishioners, and reflects the daily restoration of the sacred in each member through the active sacramental life of St. Peter’s, their spiritual home.

As St. Peter’s enters its final stages of renovation, one cannot help but recall the ancient story of Prince Vladimir of Kyiv, who in the 10th century was searching for a religion for his empire. When the Prince entered a Christian church for the very first time, he was so struck with awe that he could only describe his experience thus:


(W)e knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth.

For on earth, there is no such splendor or such beauty

and we are at a loss to describe it.

We only know that God dwells there among men.





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