American Church Artist Bancel La Farge's St. Paul Seminary Mural

On occasion I think it important to showcase local Catholic artists, both living and deceased.  One of my favorite American-born artists and church mural painters is Bancel La Farge (1865-1938).  As you can see, he had his own unique style.

Bancel was the son of a famous painter, John La Farge (his father proved more famous than he), born in Newport, R.I.  For about ten years he worked at his father's studio in New York City before he moved to Paris for twelve years to travel and study art.  He made a name for himself as an artist with a special interest in mosaics.

A married man with 4 sons, his life was evidenced by an intense passion for every form of art.  His marked characteristics were his deep love of Christ, the Church, mother nature and Byzantine styles.  All of these influences can be traced in his works.  Over the years he made murals, various church decorations, mosaics, altar pieces and stained glass works across the U.S.  He painted in oil, water color and pastel.

My favorite image by Bancel is the above apse mural entitled Christ Appearing to His Disciples at the Lake of Tiberius.  Also known as Pasce Agnos Meos, it is a scene taken from John 21:16.  This gem is seen in the old apse of St. Mary' Chapel at St. Paul's Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Taken from the Gospels this story is re-told by tour guides at the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter on the Sea of Galilee where the event took place.  This is a popular stop for Catholic pilgrim groups visiting the Holy Land.  There Christ appeared on the shore to seven of his apostles after his death and resurrection, confirming them in the Faith and declaring the primacy of St. Peter.

In St. Paul, Minnesota generations of seminarians have prayed and reflected below the gaze of this inspiring mural.  In fact, Archbishop Fulton Sheen began in this chapel the practice of his daily holy hour as a young seminarian while studying during the dark years of the First World War.

In the mural is a hidden theological meaning, that future fishers of men are constantly reminded that it is not by their own merits, but only by God's grace and mercy that they have been found worthy to be chosen and raised to the high dignity of the sacerdotal priesthood of the New Testament. 

The preservation of the image in our own time came not without a bit of drama.  During the  ascendancy of the iconoclastic deluge that arose during the postconciliar years, the apse was slated for demolition.  This was during a 1980s remake of the chapel, which in hindsight turned into a catalog of error and misjudgment that bordered on the farcical.

Local preservationists made noise and a newspaper article was published (Sunday, June 19, 1988) in veiled protest that quoted a local priest who spoke up to say the chapel was worth saving.  That priest was my good friend, Monsignor Richard Schuler, a star performer on the local stage.

Monsignor Schuler kindled a fire to stifle the blaze.  He had long been the spokesman of public discontent among local Catholics in the face of the revolutionary cataclysm of lunacy that came in the wake of the Vatican Council.  He found dissenters abhorrent and called them out regularly, identifying their false claims under the guise of the false "spirit of Vatican II."

His quoted words in the article were brilliant: "When the work is finished,"he said, "I'm sure another generation will say, 'Look at the barbarians and what they have accomplished.'"  In conversation years later Monsignor related to me how the then Archbishop (John Roach) read the article and feeling aggrieved declared he would not be called a "barbarian" and ordered the apse saved at the last minute.

Monsignor Schuler has been credited posthumously with saving the day.  In the same interview he concludes, showing wisdom beyond his day: "You simply have to respect the integrity of the original artists and architects.  This notion of destroying things is, in my mind, passé.  It was something stylish in the 1960s.  Today the whole thrust is renovation."

One of the main coterie of innovators behind the renovation plan was the official acting vice-rector at that time, Fr. James Moudry, who just a short time later was to leave the priesthood for a woman who under his tenure taught "liturgical performance" at the seminary.

Monsignor Schuler saw the chapel through its high degree of historic and artistic merit.  To him it was a connection between the visible and invisible world, a partnership between the living, the dead and those future vocations yet to be born.  He was not the only one who looked with horror at the proposed renovation for what it truly was -- a "wreckovation."  Others, too, saw it in the same light, the prompt hacking to pieces of an aged parent.

Monsignor Schuler was all for reform, but not the alleged reform of a brand-new suit of clothes, breaking the continuity of development and good taste.  He spoke of the chapel as a spiritual unity, an eternal partnership.  Fortunately the apse with its mural was spared which will make it all the more easier when the next generation decides to restore the chapel to its original splendor.

The initial plan to remove the apse is chronicled in the seminary history book by former faculty member Sr. Athans, with no mention of alumni opposition to the overall chapel renovation or the specific intervention of Monsignor Schuler: 
"The initial plan had been to remove the apse and open an entrance at the south end of the chapel. The altar would be moved to the north under the rose window. These changes would establish the chapel as the central axis of the school. The possible removal of the apse occasioned strong feelings on the part of some of the alumni who wanted to retain the mural in the apse by Bancel La Farge (see Prologue). Archbishop Roach mandated that it remain, and the south entrance of the chapel into the commons was redesigned to incorporate the apse." Source: To Work for the Whole People by Sr. Mary Christine Athans, B.V.M., pp. 331-332.

Before and after the 1980s renovation of St. Mary's Chapel at the St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. The sanctuary was bizarrely switched to the rear of the church.

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