Shared History - June 2019
- Story by Lisa Monti,
photos by Nina Cork and Drew Tartar
“It was challenging,” said parishioner Nora Wikoff of the church’s recently completed renovation. “You start with one thing and it snowballs into many things.”
In some ways, a house of worship is like any house. Over time, the elements and everyday wear and tear take a toll. The roof leaks, the paint fades and peels and lighting fixtures become outdated. Gradually, a dullness settles in over what used to shine.
Restoration projects of any size tend to spiral into a series of unexpected challenges. Imagine undertaking a project to refresh a large building such as Our Lady of the Gulf, with its artistic curved panels inset in the dome above the altar and saints painted on the ceiling high overhead.
Wikoff, an interior designer, was a member of a parish committee that worked with the Rev. Michael O’Connor, OLG’s pastor, who set out a scope of work for the restoration. Her husband, architect Ed Wikoff, was also involved in the project.
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The parish footprint has been in the same beachfront spot for almost 175 years. The current brick church was completed in 1908 after a devastating fire the year before that also destroyed St. Joseph Academy and other buildings on the beach road. It withstood many storms over the years and rebounded from the damage. When Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, the church’s roof was torn off, the interior flooded and the marble altar rail was broken into pieces.
Major repairs were made after the storm, including a new roof, but problems persisted. “We had leaks in the roof for the last 12 years, and termite damage,” said Joe Monti, a lifelong parishioner. After those issues were finally resolved, the parish was able to move ahead with plans to restore the church interior with new paint and lighting and other needed improvements.
The project was a year in the making, said Wikoff, who selected the new color scheme for the church.
In January, church services were moved to the adjacent Community Center as paint contractors set up scaffolding to prep and paint the ceiling, walls and columns. Parishioner Rick Martin directed the scaffolding placement, wall restoration and the painting contractors.
There was so much scaffolding, the work being done wasn’t visible from below. “It was like the Sistine Chapel,” Monti said. “You didn’t know what it looked like until the scaffolding was gone.”
Parishioner Nina Cork, an artist, used her talents and background in iconography to restore the canvas murals depicting Mary as Our Lady of the Gulf attached to the dome and the ceiling panels of saints. That required her to work 50 feet up in the air and without the benefit of seeing her progress from the vantage point of a pew. She also added the gold leaf throughout the sanctuary and on top of the columns. “I spent my entire 10 weeks on scaffolding,” she said. “I’d never done that before.”
Cork repainted the top third of the image of Mary to keep it as close to the original image as possible and to keep the church’s namesake as the focal point above the main altar. It’s not known who originally painted the church’s murals.
To brighten up the church’s interior, LED lights were installed to illuminate the space and highlight the stained glass windows, the Stations of the Cross and to put the focus on the altar. The LED lights on the side aisles now match those in the large center aisle and new lighting has been added to the various niches around the church.
The church’s stained glass windows, some of which were crafted in Germany decades ago, were outlined in dark blue paint and cleaned up so the colors and features were enhanced.
The Stations of the Cross along both sides of the walls date back to the 1920s and were taken down for the church renovation. Parishioner Joann Hille hand painted the plaster, three dimensional Stations some months ago and did some retouching where it was needed after the stations were hung back on the church walls.
Parishioners got to see their renovated church on Easter weekend, after volunteers cleaned and dusted, all the Carrara marble statues were uncovered and the artwork was back in place. “It was a long process but it came together at the last minute,” Monti said.
Cork called the renovation “a wonderful team effort, with everybody using his or her skills. We all had our own vision but to see it all pulled together, it’s just amazing.”
There’s still some work to be done, most notably the return of the original altar rail severely damaged by Katrina and a redesign of cabinets in the sacristy behind the altar.
Father Mike said that OLG has always been recognized as a beautiful church and that made the prospect of changing some interior features a bit daunting.
“Due to the research, hard-work and talent of so many, I believe we have really made almost everyone happy. I feel truly blessed by the results of the renovations, and I am happy for the parishioners of OLG and the many visitors we host here,” he said.
“Going all the way back the Temple of Solomon, we recognize that the beauty of ‘God’s house’ should raise the mind and heart to contemplate the beauty of God’s truth and presence. I believe OLG does that as good as ever. I could not be more grateful for the team of professionals and volunteers that made this renovation a success.”