Art at St. John Berchmans Catholic Church covered for half century

Parishioners at St. John Berchmans Catholic Church are just now becoming aware of the nearly century-old religious art treasures that were hidden from their view for nearly 50 years.

Exposed for the first time since the small village church underwent a remodeling project during the 1960s are 25 circular paintings.

Monsignor Russell Harrington, pastor of St. John Berchmans since 2012, said until he began his own investigation, few of the current churchgoers recalled the paintings, which feature prominent scenes, psalms and passages found in the Bible and New Testament.

“It wasn’t until I began asking around that some of the older (parishioners) vaguely remembered that something was there and had been covered up,” Harrington said.

The interior of the church was altered significantly as part of a modernization effort to make the church more comfortable, according to a published story in a 1968 edition of the Opelousas Daily World.

That’s when the paintings, affixed to the walls, vanished from view. As the decades passed, memories of their presence also faded.

Harrington said part of that modernization project involved nailing Masonite paneling over the church’s original pine interior walls, then suspending a false ceiling made of Celotex squares above the pews.

The paintings, about 33 inches wide, disappeared under the paneling, not to be seen again until an accidental discovery was made by a seminarian in 2013, Harrington said.

Harrington said the mystery of the paintings began to unfold while Sal Istre, the seminarian, was examining a large scrapbook of the church history.

“He saw in a picture of one of the paintings on the wall where we now have a cry room for infants and he questioned why that painting was no longer there,” said Harrington.

Locating the existence of the paintings has helped spark an overall church restoration project that Keith Morris, an interior design specialist from Baton Rouge, said will eventually recreate the inside of the church as much as possible to its appearance after it was constructed in 1925.

The current project has already stripped away the Masonite boards. Removal of the Celotex also has revealed a large mural featuring Mary’s Assumption that had been painted on the church’s original ceiling, said Harrington.

“It’s been somewhat like an antique roadshow moment the last year or so. You begin to find out so many things about the church which have been obscured or lost over time and you want to restore them,” Harrington said. “All the paintings were in various stages of disrepair and all of them needed cleaning because of the dirt and dust.”

Morris said the St. John Berchmans project has been personally intriguing in a building that first served the rural area southwest of Sunset and Grand Coteau as a Jesuit missionary church in 1912.

Morris said over the years, scenes on some of the paintings became obliterated, while parts of others were obviously cut away from their canvases, perhaps by parishioners seeking to preserve portions of the paintings that they wanted to remember.

Restoration has also been arduous, as Morris has had to remove tiny nails and the damage they created.

No one is sure who did the original paintings, but Morris said he and Harrington have found similar religious scenes which were probably mass produced and could be ordered for churches during the 1920s.

Locating facsimiles of the originals has helped, Morris said, as he has had to clean and repair them.

“I’ve tried to restore them as close as possible to their original look that they had in the 1920s. I’ve also had to patch cracks in the paintings, remove the debris left by dust and roaches that invaded them,” Morris said.

Morris said he’s also had to use some creativity and imagination in some cases, where portions of the paintings were no longer there.

“On one painting there was not much left, but it looked like there had once been a animal there, probably a lamb, so I had to paint a lamb over a scroll onto the canvas.

“In another case something had been cut out of one painting, but there was evidence of perhaps a fish’s tail, so I drew in and painted a fish, which I thought should be a redfish because of the Louisiana theme.

“Father wants the inscriptions on the paintings to be in French, so I thought the indigenous redfish might be appropriate,” Morris said.

Morris said some of the work is also done in his Baton Rouge studio and the images sent to Harrington via email.

“We do a lot of our correspondence that way. It makes it easier, so I don’t have to be on site all the time,” Morris said.

Morris said the project also includes restoring paintings of the 12 apostles, whose canvases resemble those of the other paintings. The apostles’ paintings have always been visible, even during the modernization era, Harrington said.

Harrington said the last painting discovered was probably the most important to the history of the church.

“As the boards were removed from the church foyer, there it was, a painting of St. John Berchmans, for whom this church was named. It was as if finding that painting was the climactic event in all we had uncovered so far,” Harrington said.

John Berchmans, church officials believe, is responsible for miracles, including one in Grand Coteau during the 1860s, when a young nun was cured of what physicians thought to be a terminal illness.

Harrington said that when finished, the project also will feature a new painting by Morris of Henriette Delille, of New Orleans, who founded the order of the Sisters of The Holy Family. Delille’s painting will overlook a section of St. John Berchmans that was once segregated away from the white worshippers.

“It’s been frustrating more than difficult,” Morris said of the overall scope of the project. “When you realize the quaint, rustic ambiance that this church has you realize its character, you begin to realize all this work will be worth it.”