by Cori Hilsgen
It’s always fun to uncover buried treasures, but for Andy Loso, president of the St. Joseph Historical Society, a recent discovery of a buried church mural was especially interesting.
While renovating the vesting Sacristy, workers uncovered a painting that was part of the mural at the St. Joseph Catholic Church.
Loso, who is the church’s facilities manager, said he had heard about the “Purgatory” painting that was painted by renowned artist Johann Schmitt. Many older parishioners had told him about the beautiful painting that once hung on the east wall of the vesting Sacristy which was originally built as a smaller chapel to be used for daily Mass in the winter months because it was much smaller and less expensive to heat.
After Loso started working for the church 17 years ago, he kept his eyes open for interesting artifacts as he was working in different areas of the church.
His first discovery was two stained-glass windows that originally were located on each side of the church’s high altar.
With help from Nick Studer, the windows were saved for a future use. After Heritage Hall was built, the windows were restored by Studer and installed on the inside entrance doors of the parish center.
Loso said he continued to search for the Purgatory painting, hoping it had been painted on canvas and had been removed and stored away.
At the time of the church’s sesquicentennial, he discussed the mural with a man named Albert Schindler.
Schindler informed Loso he had helped remove the mural from the wall. He also told Loso it was in two pieces and they had rolled it up and given it to the church pastor at that time.
This information encouraged Loso and he continued to search for it.
Loso said the winter chapel space became necessary to update so bathrooms could be handicapped accessible and the area could be accessible to anyone with mobility issues. The construction updates were included as part of a church renovation project.
He said similar to when the church was built, parishioners stepped forward to do the demolition of the space to help the church save money.
At the end of August, Dale Sand, and his crew of Dave Sand and Joseph Loso, began the removal of the interior of the winter chapel. On the third day, Dale Sand showed Andy Loso a wooden door behind the east wall of drywall. On the door was a painting of what Loso describes as an “angel, monk and sister behind the gates of Purgatory trying to help others rise from the flames of hell and ascend into heaven.”
Loso was very interested in the painting.
“It was a great feeling to finally see that a piece of this mural still resided in this space,” Loso said. “The next thing was to decide what is to be done with this piece of history. The remodel called for a closet over this space. We went from revision four to revision six of the design of this space quickly. Currently, we are hoping to leave (the painting) in this space as it was found and encase it so everyone can see it once again.”
The Rev. Jerome Tupa, an artist himself, gave the mural a light cleaning and Loso said the vibrant colors are once again popping off the door.
Because the door is in the mural, Loso believes previous parishioners and others decided it was easier to leave the door where it was.
“I wish they would have just left the entire mural on the wall, but it didn’t remain,” he said. “There are remnants of canvas still tacked to the wall, but it appears they may have used a knife to cut along the tacks and just removed the pieces as they fell. On the ceiling of the space, you can see the clouds that were painted (on) the ceiling panels. One of those remains.”
When writing about the parish’s history in the book “Rooted in Christ the Living Stone, The Story of St. Joseph Church, St. Joseph, Minnesota A Sesquicentennial Celebration 1856-2006,” Sister Owen Lindblad described the mural as follows.
“Inside the winter chapel hung a large canvas mural entitled ‘Purgatory’.” It was painted by a renowned Catholic, and deeply religious artist, Johann Schmitt. Schmitt was born in 1825 in Heinstadt, Baden, Germany. He studied art in Munich, Germany and New York. His rise to fame was phenomenal. His paintings, especially murals, were found in many older churches of the Midwest. His work breathed deep religious thought – fresh in color, chaste in design. Considered the finest painter in America at the time, Schmitt introduced a more religious note into devotional art which preserved a part of the history of Catholic art in America.”
A photo of the complete mural can be found in Lindblad’s book.