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Historic St. Ignatius murals partway through restoration

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ST. IGNATIUS — An Italian Jesuit’s murals and frescoes have wowed visitors to this town’s mission for over a century. It will take plenty of work to keep it that way.

“You can see where bits of plaster have actually fallen off,” said the mission’s pastoral delegate, the Rev. C. Hightower, gesturing around the church’s 58 paintings. “You can see all the cracks, and on this one, you can see where it's actually bubbling over in the corner there, so they have to reseal all of that.”

Since he arrived at St. Ignatius in 2017, Hightower has helped oversee this painstaking, and expensive, restoration project, a bid to preserve a unique landmark in the Mission Valley.

The Jesuits founded the St. Ignatius Mission Parish in 1845 near the present-day Washington-Idaho state line, then moved it to its current location at the foot of the Mission Range in 1854.

From 1891 to 1893, they constructed the present church, using what they had to build a structure more than 100 feet tall. “Everything here … is local manufacture,” Hightower said. “The bricks are from here, the wood is all local.”

The task of decorating the sanctuary fell to Brother Joseph Carignano, who served as the site’s cook and handyman during its early years. Despite having no formal training in art, he produced 58 paintings for the church from 1904 to 1905, striking images of saints and biblical scenes. In this remote New World valley, congregants face a “triptych” fresco of the Last Judgment that wouldn’t look out of place in Carignano’s native Italy.

Hundreds of worshipers continue to gather beneath these paintings each week, and they've become a fixture on western Montana’s tourist circuit. On summer weekends, “we get probably 200 visitors a day,” Hightower said. “Tour buses stop here.”

“It's a vital part of our community, that church,” said Fred Gariepy, chairman of the Mission’s Finance and Property Committee. “It draws people from all over the world. We need to keep it up.”

That’s no easy task. The area's extreme weather, loose soil and occasional earthquakes have all taken their toll on the structure. And Carignano’s medium of choice — plaster — gets restless with age.

“What's happening is that the plaster is just delaminating off of the lath,” the wooden slats behind it, Hightower said. As the “keys” holding the plaster to the slats break, “it’s actually falling forward.”

About eight years ago, the artwork's condition took a turn for the worse.

“The altar area was sagging” about 3 inches, Gariepy remembered. The process of shoring it up "caused the plaster on the murals to start popping off the walls." A strip of the triptych’s middle panel now bulges 3 inches out from the wall; a cheesecloth-like mesh holds the lobe in place for now.

That turn of events, Gariepy said, changed restoration “from a ‘we need to get it done,’ to ‘it has to be done.’”

After a few years of fundraising and stabilization, Boise-based Custom Plaster began work last summer. On his phone, Hightower scrolled through photos of repairs to a towering mural of St. Joseph. Workers set up scaffolding, re-fastened the plaster to the lath, and sealed its cracks and touched up its colors with historically accurate materials.  

“It goes from being that out of shape, with whole chunks falling out, to being historically correct.”

Because of plaster's sensitivities to temperature, the work takes place during the summer. Last year, Hightower said, the restoration team finished about 30 percent of the paintings. Ideally, Hightower said, lessons from that experience will enable them to move faster and finish the project this summer. But, he acknowledged, it might end up taking longer.

“It takes them a long time,” he said. “It's very labor-intensive.”

It’s also expensive. He estimated the work would total $1.2 million. "We have a significant amount of that raised, but we're still in active asking period.”

The murals are hardly the only part of the church in need of a touch-up. Its sculptures are chipped, its pews scratched. Much of the altarpiece's original marble pattern lies hidden beneath white lead paint. A strip of one wall hints at a once-ornate gold leaf design awaiting restoration. And, as Hightower closed the door to the church, he ruefully noted that they had almost made it through winter without more damage to the concrete steps out front.

“That is a money pit,” Gariepy said of the church. “It's a never-ending project, and it seems like before we get one project done, another thing jumps up.”

The mission has gotten creative with its fundraising initiatives, which include annual Easter oratorio concerts and an "Adopt-a-Pew" program. The response to these activities has Hightower optimistic about the church’s future.

“It's an old building, there's just a lot of work to do with the restoration, and again with the generosity of the community … we'll protect it for another hundred years.”

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