Immaculate Conception BVM Church

Founded in 1852 by St. John Neumann

"Life of Mary" and Side Altar Murals by Frederick D. Henwood

(Special thanks to St. Mary’s parishioner Fred Doepkins for the use of his photography on this page.)

 

Without a doubt one of the most striking features of Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church is the soaring ceiling with the series of fourteen murals painted in 1921 by Frederick de Henwood. With the beautiful marble and plaster statuary and the ceiling and side altar murals, St. Mary’s Church is indeed a catechism through paint and stone.

 

Frederick Dimble Henwood lived most of his life in the United States, though born and buried in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England. In addition to his portraits, he was commissioned for artwork and murals for Catholic churches in Eastport, Maine; Queens, New York; Old Towne, Maine; Washington, DC; Philadelphia, PA; Baltimore, MD; and eighteen murals for St. Mary’s in York, PA.  Sixteen of those murals are still extant.

In 1921 then-Father George Breckel oversaw the interior renovation of the 1884 church which witnessed the removal of all former sanctuary appointments and the installation of new imported altars, pulpit, altar rail, and statuary from the Pietrasanta (Carrara) marble quarries of Italy. To complete this interior renovation, Breckel commissioned Frederick de Henwood to decorate the ceiling, side altars, and main sanctuary of the church in preparation for the July 16, 1921 consecration of the church building.


The following account is from the 1921 St. Mary’s Parish Annual (pages 25-27):


The frescoing is a rare example of church decoration. The plan under consideration was to bring out the true spirit of Gothic architecture; to retain all possible of the spiritual and mystic symbolism of the structure and this has been accomplished in a manner worthy of the highest religious aspirations. Directly the edifice is entered, in bold relief to the whiteness of the marble altars and proximate decorations, is the gold frescoing of the sanctuary walls; on either side are two large paintings. The one of the left (entering) is a painting of Melchisedech, the High Priest of the old Law, offering bread and wine as a thank offering over Abram’s  victories (Genesis, 14-18). It foreshadows the Eucharistic sacrifice of the New Law. The idea was obtained from a tabernacle decoration by Mino de Fiesole and Dalmata in the Church of St. Mark in Venice. The original idea, however, is modified, as here the majesty of the High Priest is given prominence, the portraits of the Angels and Abram of the original being omitted. On the opposite side is a painting of a scene of the New Testament, Christ manifesting Himself to the disciples at Emmaus (St. Luke, 24-30.) The scene dates back to the catacomb etchings in Rome.


(Ed. note: These two aforementioned paintings were painted over in the 1952 renovations of the church and were unable to be restored in the 2002 restoration.)


 On the panels of the ceiling, between the woodwork of oak, around the entire nave are fourteen excellent paintings, depicting the life of the Blessed Virgin – an idea most appropriate, in lieu of the fact that the church is dedicated in Her honor. The first painting at the right near the Sanctuary represents the Virgin, now a child of about eight years reciting the Evensong at the knees of her mother, St. Anne. The second represents “The Espousals of the Blessed Virgin” (now a girl in her teens) to St. Joseph, a ceremony presided over by the Jewish priest, who is depicted as blessing the Ring of Espousals. It is adopted from Raphael’s celebrated easel picture in the Vatican at Rome. The third represents “The Annunciation”. It is taken from a painting in the National gallery, London, by the early Italian artist, Guirlanditino. The fourth depicts “The Visitation,” the two prominent figures having been adapted from the celebrated picture of this subject by the Italian Guercino, of Florence; but here the terrace and background take the spectator very literally into the “hill-country”, and the face of the Blessed Virgin is not in exact profile, as in the original. The fifth, designating “No Room in the Inn” representsmost vividly the “refusal” by the evading hand of the inn-keeper, and the half-closed door of entrance; the gesture of appeal of both Joseph and Mary, with her gaze directed Heaven-ward, contains a stinging rebuke of Man’s rejection of the Advent of Christ. The sixth, “The Nativity”, has a realistic as well as prophetic tone. Here Mary adores her Infant Saviour, whom she has taken from the manger into an outer half of a ruined Roman courtyard, placing straw for a bed on a broken Roman capital, symbolizing the coming ascendency of Christ’s Kingdom on earth. Two lambs are near and the traditional ox, while Joseph, hard by, watches over Mother and Child in wonderment and prayerful devotion. The seventh typifies the Presentation in the Temple, an adaptation from Guercino. The eighth, “The Flight into Egypt”, is a decorative copy of a modern French painting by an unknown author. The ninth, “The Return from Egypt” is likewise of the French school. The tenth, “The Boy Christ and His Mother”, portrays the two at recreation, both finding it in some useful occupation. But the Child foreshadows His own and His Mother’s sorrows, as He symbolically crosses two pieces of wood. The eleventh, “The Parting of the Son and Mother”, is suggested by a little thumb-nail  Perry pictoral engraving of a modern German artist; it expresses the half-reluctant leave-taking farewell of Christ to the humble little home of his boyhood, as he goes forth on his mission to save the souls of men. The twelfth, “The Return from Calvary”, is in sharp contrast to the fore-going painting, breathing the very spirit of the utter grief that possesses the soul of Mary, as with drooping figure and bowed head, she leans upon the supporting arm of St. John and with Magdalen follows the body of her Son to the Grave. The thirteenth, “The Death (ed. note: Dormition) of the Blessed Virgin”, is an original adaptation of a painting by Francheschini, whose topic is the “Death of St. Joseph”.  The fourteenth, “The Coronation of the Blessed Virgin”, is a beautiful concept, visualizing her triumph over sorrow, and her victory in the possession of her Risen Saviour in Heaven.


Over the side Altars are two beautifully blended paintings, the one on the left (entering) being a rendition of Tiepolo’s masterpiece at Venice, entitled “Queen of the Rosary”; while over St. Joseph’s Altar, is an original composition entitled “The Vision of St. Simon Stock”, around both of these are artistically portrayed Fra Angelico’s Angels.”

 

For some reason during the 1952 renovation all of the Henwood frescoes but the two above the side altars were covered. The two sanctuary murals were completely covered by paint, and the ceiling murals were covered by what have been described Egyptian bas-relief stylized scenes of the life of the Blessed Virgin, executed in green and gold tones. To celebrate the parish’s one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary in 2002, these 1952 paintings were to be restored in the studio of the Gibbons Company of Baltimore, and thus these canvas paintings were removed from the ceiling. A chance visit to the church during the renovation led the parish secretary to discover the original 1921 Henwood painting depicting the Presentation in the Temple. When the pastor, Rev. Robert M. Gillelan was appraised of the situation he contacted the noted local artist and art restorer Othmar Carli who evaluated the rediscovered murals and advised that they could and indeed should be restored. Carlisle artist Nancy Stamm was recommended for the role of restorer and by the end of July 2002 St. Mary’s Church ceiling was restored and once again inspired the faithful to greater devotion to the Blessed Mother, who always brings her spiritual children to her Divine Son.

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