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Old church murals cast in new light in Strip District

Pittsburgh Post GazetteBy Angela Hayes
Saturday, April 7, 2007
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Josie Santapietro always had a habit of looking up while praying in church, but during tonight’s Easter vigil she and other parishioners may find new inspiration to worship.

During the Mass, which begins in total darkness and then gradually illuminates with light, St. Stanislaus Kostka Church in the Strip District will unveil its new lighting system, a project that will bring the church’s 120-year-old ceiling murals to life.

Before, “you always looked at them but you didn’t really see them,” said Ms. Santapietro, the rectory secretary.

“I equate it to our own kind of Sistine Chapel,” said Derris Jeffcoat, the sacristan.

The project was started after a smoking chandelier prompted a visit from the city Fire Department. Fire officials at the time told the Rev. Harry Nichols, pastor of the church, to replace the electrical wiring immediately.

With a wealth of history behind the church, the decision to renovate was obvious. So far, the church has received $80,000 in donations to help fund the $300,000 project.

Although the project began as a safety necessity, Father Nichol’s saw it as an opportunity to emphasize the building’s architecture and paintings.

Lighting designers from Astorino, the Downtown architectural firm, used new lamp designs to enhance and protect the paint of the murals and to bring out the ornate detail of wooden columns in the church, down to the tiniest leaf.

“It’s showing up things in the church we’ve never seen before,” Father Nichols said.

In a church where it used to be difficult to read a book of hymns, the new light system is something the parish is celebrating.

Each of the murals represents a significant event in either the history of the Catholic Church or in Polish history.

During a test-run of the lighting project, Mr. Jeffcoat saw the difference in visibility of the murals. With the lights switched on, he saw a mural painted around 1900 of Polish king Jan Sobieski defeating the Turkish army in the battle of Vienna in 1683 and pointed out the vivid color.

“No one’s ever seen the murals like this,” he said.

During the project, lighting designers worked with Mr. Jeffcoat and Father Nichols to ensure that the approximately 106 new light fixtures were carefully hidden from view. The team also chose two custom-made chandeliers that fit the church’s present architecture, matching a pattern found in the church pews.

Unveiling the project at tonight’s Easter vigil is symbolic to Mr. Jeffcoat and the congregation because the Mass is actually a ceremony to honor light.

“We couldn’t think of a better time to inaugurate the lighting,” he said.

“To have Christ light up our church and to have our church physically light up — it gives me goosebumps.”

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