Before and After: St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, Menasha, Wisconsin

While there are many things in our time that we might understandably lament, one of those things surely isn't the absence of parish beautification projects. Today's project, executed by Conrad Schmitt Studios, comes within the context of the church of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Menasha, Wisconsin.  The church is a classic example of late nineteenth century gothic revival, being built in 1884 and designed by German-American architect, Adolphus Druiding, complemented with impressive wooden carvings in the Bavarian tradition by another German-American, William Laemmrich.   Some further background from the parish:

The church building was designed by renowned German-born architect Adolphus Druiding with important elements by two other German immigrants, the painter William Scheer, who did the Stations of the Cross, and William Laemmrich of Menasha, who executed the incredible wooden elements which remain St. Mary's most distinctive features, from the altars to the frames of the Stations.

All these elements worked together in the Gothic Revival style to create a single, harmonious vision of the universe in miniature, with the sanctuary, our Holy of Holies, a vision of Heaven with Our Lord at center, flanked by Our Lady, St. Joseph, the heavenly host of angels, and the communion of saints. The nave represents the earthly Creation, with its leafy-topped columns representing the trees in the courtyard of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the natural world.

Over the years, the painted elements which tied all these together gradually disappeared behind the marble wainscoting and progressively plainer paint schemes. We have chosen to return the church to her original glory, with a Gothic Revival paint scheme that emphasizes and unifies the church into what it originally was and what it always should be: a crown jewel of the Church in Wisconsin..."

The story of the loss of decorative elements, whether for reason of decay or for reason of the liturgical fads and fashions certain generations historically have had for liturgical minimalism, is a familiar one and fortunately the parish chose to do something about it.  Of course the church itself was beautiful even without such ornament, primarily because of the retention of its historic altars with their beautiful woodwork:


However, I think you'll agree, that as this project comes together (and it is not yet completed please note) the historical use of pattern and colour really brings the church alive. 

The first phase of this restoration/renovation is focused on the apse and sanctuary, so the remaining walls and ceiling of the nave, while yet still white at this point, will eventually be decorated in a similar style. Here is how things stand to date.

AFTER (Phase 1):

As you can see, a decorative scheme of golds, reds and blues has been established -- a very common palette in the gothic revival.  I'd point out that a painted scene has been added in the arch located directly behind the crucifix that is located on top of the reredos thereby creating a more complete scene of the crucifixion that involves the sculptural figures on the reredos effectively interacting with the architecture behind.  The painted scene depicts the valley of Golgotha and seen beyond in the distance behind is the city of Jerusalem. 

In the empty niches that you can see toward the triumphal arch of the church, future phases of this project will see depictions of angels added. They will be designed in such a way that they will be dually adoring Christ on the Cross and also on the altar and in the tabernacle.

The triumphal arch itself is decorated with an image of the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, with rays emanating from it, thereby framing the entire sanctuary and emphasizing the gifts and graces that the Holy Spirit pours down upon us. 

The ceiling of the apse itself is decorated with a starry blue sky, representing the heavens, while the walls contain vine-work -- a reference to Christ as the true vine -- as well as floral motifs (including fleur-de-lys) coming with reference to Our Lady, the patron saint of the parish church. 

I'd make the point here of noting the scrollwork that now frames the stained glass windows; this very effectively augments and draws out the patterns found in the windows themselves. This might seem counter-intuitive as one might think adding this sort of ornament might instead take away from the windows, however the opposite is true -- much like how a beautiful, ornamental picture frame only serves to draw more attention to the painting contained within it. 

We had mentioned that this project is only partially completed. Here is the envisioned, completed form of the project in a digital rendering. When completed, the floral motifs, the starry heavens motif on the ceiling and the other design elements already emanating from the sanctuary will be extended to the rest of the church, thereby creating a consistent, harmonized whole:

The idea is to bring the parish church back closer to its historical origins, which can be seen here (apologies for the poor photo quality). 

Incidentally, if you'd like a little taste of the exquisite woodwork in the church, here is an image of the reredos of the historical high altar prior to the sanctuary renovations: 

As noted, the project was designed by Conrad Schmitt Studios. For more information, please see their website or visit them on social media

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