ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CYNTHIA MARTENS
As a jeweler takes a semi-precious stone and polishes it, artist Don Wendt has taken the interior of St. John Nepomucene Catholic Church in Pilsen and restored it to a brilliance that rivals any rare gemstone.
“He took pride in his work,” said Terry Vinduska, a congregant at St. John. “These other people are church painters-Don is a true artist.”
St. John Nepomucene congregants are responsible for the renovation of their church, a lengthy project that is still in progress.
The restoration plans were approved by the Catholic Diocese in Wichita and inspired, in part, by the push to designate Father Emil Kapaun a saint.
Kapaun was born in Pilsen and is revered for his dedication and heroism as a military chaplain.
The cornerstone of the gothic-style church of his hometown reads 1914. Significant work had not been done on the building since about 1962.
“It was in very bad need of restoration,” Wendt said. “If you can imagine, if you didn’t paint your house for 40 years, what it would look like. The old paint was dirty, and there was smoke damage from the candles and soot from the furnace.”
Wendt, owner of Don Wendt Ecclesiastical Studios out of Greenwood, Mo., began working on the church Nov. 5.
“When we were asked to bid the church, some of the committee people and the priest told us what they were interested in,” Wendt said.
“I worked up a bid on the church with my ideas and gave them a colored rendering of the way I perceived the church to look. Once we got the bid, basically we took it from there.”
Wendt’s work crew included two other men who joined him for four months on the project, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday. They drove back to Missouri on the weekends and then returned to spend their weekdays in Pilsen.
In the early 1960s, Vatican II guidelines simplified a lot of the Catholic churches, Wendt said.
“They were removing a lot of the altars and altar rails,” he said. “Now the country churches-most of the people had a little more say in it, and they were a little more protective of their church where they didn’t let the priests tear things out.”
That was the case for the Pilsen church, Wendt said.
When he walked into the church, Wendt discovered the statues, altars and stations of the cross still in place and awaiting his artistic touch. Even the old altar rail was stored in the balcony.
His crew worked on everything except the carpet, pews, sound system, handicapped access and a new reconciliation room. Those items were left to the large crews of volunteers, who are still busy working on their part of the project.
“We redid the entire church,” he said.
One of the first items of business was to remove all the stations of the cross and statues from the altars and walls.
“Basically, we go through the entire church with a fine-tooth comb,” Wendt said.
“We go through all the walls and the ceilings, repairing cracks and any loose or damaged plaster. We scrape it out and replaster it and trowel it.”
The restoration proceeded in a well-choreographed pattern:
Cleaning all surfaces, priming with an oil-based primer/sealer and caulking cracks in the window frames;
Saving and enhancing the five medallions in the sanctuary-a medallion is a circle bearing a figure, portrait or ornament in relief;
Completing the field painting, including the walls and ceilings, in neutral base colors;
Detailing the trim, such as the ribs in the ceiling, the wells and the wainscoting;
Stenciling and applying gold gilding on different moldings, including the frieze above the walls, the cornice moldings and the egg-dart balls in the ceiling ribs;
Applying stenciling and gold gilding on the main altar and three side altars;
Marblizing the columns with a granite-marble finish;
Gilding the relief moldings-the cove moldings and pinnacles on the steeples;
Painting the statuary with opaque lacquers;
Building the new holy table and ambo-an ambo is the correct term for the lectern;
Restored the ceiling lights.
The main altar and three side altars contained nine statues which were left to Wendt to personally restore. He sanded down the figures where the paint had peeled, cleaned them and then air-brushed on the restoration hues.
“They’re all the old plaster and horsehair statues, and then you have one statue-a wood carving of the sacred heart of Jesus-that stands alone.”
The holy table and ambo built by Wendt’s crew were made from pieces of the confessional-previously taken apart by the parishioners-and the altar rail, which was stored in the balcony.
“We used some of the ornate pieces of wood on the ambo, and then we used one of the new altar gates on the new altar of sacrifice,” Wendt said.
In today’s liturgical practices in the Catholic church, the confessionals have been replaced by a room of reconciliation, where parishioners have the option to go behind a screen or speak to the priest face to face.
The new reconciliation room eventually will be built in the spot where the confessional once stood-in the back corner of the church.
The three hanging ceiling lights were an unusual challenge, Wendt said.
The fixtures, made of plaster, weighed more than 100 pounds. He had to take each one down during the restoration.
“Normally, we’ll pull all the lights up in the ceiling because we rig all our own scaffolding and roll it back and forth,” Wendt said. “But the lights were so heavy we had to take them down.”
The stations of the cross, 14 individual carvings of the journey of Christ and his crucifixion, are displayed on two side walls of the interior of the church.
“Now this is what’s kind of special about this church-the stations of the cross are really unusually large,” Wendt said.
The gothic-style frames are about 8 feet tall and 4 feet wide, each outlining a plaster-relief plaque, that sits inside it, with figures made of plaster and horsehair.
“So the stations of the cross, this is the largest set we’ve worked on,” Wendt said. “It was a real challenge getting them off the walls, getting them apart and getting them back. All that stuff is pretty fragile.”
Wendt added an artist’s touch to the figures, which hasn’t gone unnoticed by the parishioners.
Instead of painting the robes flat red or burgundy colors, Wendt chose to highlight the fold of the robes with subtle shading, creating shadows and depth, Vinduska said.
“It’s incredible, it looks real.”
The cost for Wendt’s work, about $139,000, did not include the statues, which were a separate bid.
“I think a lot of people don’t realize, when we’re working on it, we’ll stand back and look at it and make sure it looks right to our satisfaction,” Wendt said.
“Because every church is different, unique, special-we kind of try to put our own personal stamp on it, so to speak.”
The work being done has stirred so much interest that Pilsen is experiencing an influx of sightseers.
“But we’re not ready for them yet,” said Gail Makovec, a parishioner and volunteer worker.
The volunteers are still in the middle of renovating after Wendt’s departure, and keep the church locked for safety reasons.
Father Steve Gronert of Holy Family Parish serves St. John Nepomucene Catholic Church and said he hopes to be in the church by Easter.
“The bishop of our diocese is coming to Pilsen for confirmation on April 21, and we’re hoping he can do a dedication because we have a new altar, and he’s going to dedicate that,” Gronert said.
Vinduska said they plan to announce when the church will be open to the public.
“We’d like to have an open house, and that way we could bring large groups through.”