November 19, 2012
Umbarger—The story of St. Mary’s Church, Umbarger, has been told in many books and documentaries. The photos of the church interior have been published in magazines, newspapers and other periodicals.
It’s a story that is among the most celebrated, not only in the Diocese of Amarillo, but in the history of the Texas Panhandle.
And the story is being retold as the 83-year-old church building is being renovated back to its December 1945 state.
More on that in a moment.
First, the history:
In 1942, Camp Hereford, which was known officially as The Hereford Military Reservation and Reception Area, was built in portions of Deaf Smith and Castro counties. The camp was one of two in the Texas Panhandle—the second was the Permanent Alien Internment Camp for German prisoners in McLean.
Camp Hereford was the second-largest prisoner of war camp built in the United States, capable of holding up to 4,000 prisoners. Records show the first prisoners of war arrived in Hereford on April 3, 1943, with the final prisoners departing Hereford on Feb. 7, 1946.
While the German prisoners were held in McLean, almost all of the prisoners at Camp Hereford were Italian military personnel who would not renounce their allegiance to Benito Mussolini after his fall in 1943.
Though the Italian prisoners were confined in a maximum-security camp, many showed themselves to be non-hostile to the U.S. solders who guarded them, and to the locals in the surrounding communities.
As time passed, many of the prisoners worked every day on area farms for wages, returning to the camp at night.
Fast forward to 1945: the war was over and many prisoners at Camp Hereford were hungry as they waited for repatriation to their homeland.
To keep their minds off food, a number of prisoners dedicated themselves to artistic pursuits. One of those prisoners was 24-year-old Franco Di Bello, who painted a portrait for Father Achilles Ferreri, a camp chaplain.
In an effort to boost camp morale, Father Ferreri dreamed of conducting a public art show and asked the future Italian general for his assistance.
The Camp Hereford Art Expo took place that August, which included 220 works, mostly paintings, but a number of wood carvings and sculptures.
Among those who attended the expo was Father John H. Krukkert, pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Umbarger. Father Krukkert was reportedly impressed with the talent—and it gave him an idea: Would the prisoners decorate his 16-year-old church building?
At the time, the predominant color inside St. Mary’s Church was white—white walls, white windows, white Stations of the Cross. The only items not white were the altars and the statues.
The idea was presented to the prisoners.
“We will decorate St. Mary’s Church only in the bonds of Christian brotherhood and to the glory of God,” replied Di Bello.
Di Bello was joined by eight other prisoners. Achille Cattanei was an interior decorator from Milan. Dino Gambetti was a professional artist who had painted church frescoes in Genoa and Turin.
Enrico Zorzi and Carlo Sanvito hailed from wood-carving villages in Northern Italy. Amedeo Maretto and Antonio Monetti were from an area near Venice, renowned for its stained glass. Serving as artist assistants were Leonida Gorlato and Mario de Cristofaro.
Cattanei helped Di Bello fine tune his artistic talents, and on Oct. 22, 1945, the work began on St. Mary’s Church.
Above the altar, two men, Gambetti and Cattenei painted the Assumption as an oil-on-canvas work, which took them a week to complete. Sanvito created a carving of the Last Supper, which resides to this day on the altar at St. Mary’s.
Completed in 41 working days, the artwork was dedicated on Dec. 8, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Fast forward to 2011.
Just over 66 years after the artwork by the Italian prisoners had been dedicated, time and conditions of living in the Texas Panhandle had begun to show on the artwork and parishioners decided it was time to do something about preserving the history that had been left to them.
Enter Sorellas Studio, based in Clarendon, owned and operated by Chriss Clifford, a parishioner at St. Mary’s Church there.
“Sorellas Studio conserves, restores and replicates aged and damaged murals,” said Clifford. “For conservation, methods are used that preserve the original artists’ work. Mural conservation requires both technical expertise and artistic sensitivity; sometimes requiring the conserver to in paint areas of paint loss. Mural restoration includes conservation techniques; in addition, can include meticulous over-painting to allow the original full beauty to be restored.
“Every project is unique due to numerous factors, including a building’s history, the wishes of the client and the budget. With careful study, dialog and consideration, the best approach is determined.”
Representatives of the Umbarger parish requested that Sorellas Studio follow conservation methods to begin the project, said Clifford.
“The process for the artistry at St. Mary’s began with a visual inspection, as well as written and photographic documentation of the existing conditions and materials used,” she said. “All existing deterioration and material failures were identified. Microscopic examination and materials analyses assisted in identifying the best solution.
“A treatment plan was developed to clean the artwork and stabilize all that was original. Following this, a conservation varnish was painted over the original artwork to preserve it and separate it from any ‘infill’ painting that followed in areas of paint loss. One of the notable aspects of conservation work is that it is completely reversible.
“Stabilization is an intervention to halt deterioration and prevent further damage. Reversibility is a requirement for all products and processes used to renew the artwork, so that future conservators are able to remove all post-historic paint and start again with what remains of the original. Conservation is a long-term solution for maintaining and preserving valued interior artistry.”
Clifford said having historic murals evaluated and treated by formally trained conservators is the best way to prevent irreversible damage. Sorellas Studio consulted with a professionally trained conservator prior to the start of the project and has followed cleaning and stabilization procedures as outlined by the conservator, she added.
“The most important aspect of treatment is that any non-historic painting (done to fill areas of paint loss and/or return the artwork to its original appearance) should be separated from the original by a layer of non-yellowing barrier varnish,” said Clifford. “This allows a future conservator to completely remove the non-historic painting to prevent build-up over time. If approached with a conservation mindset, a valued mural, even one in a deteriorated state, can be preserved for posterity.
As Clifford and her group of six artists—Carol Cravens of Denton, Patrizia DaMilano, Randall Derrick, Rafael Canizares Yunez and Matt Lemburg, all of Amarillo, and Deborah Woolsey of Canyon, —began their work, they learned many things about the artwork and what time can do to fine art.
“There were many area of paint loss, primarily in the sanctuary, nave and confessional that were due to severe water damage under windows and cracks in the interior plaster walls coinciding with a damaged brick exterior,” she said. “We also discovered candle smoke, incense and smoke damage from an interior fire sometime in the 1960’s in the bell tower.”
Clifford also learned other details about the Italian prisoners artwork, even the paint used.
“Through research, it was determined that interior flat paint was the original paint used by the artists in 1945, purchased from Sears & Roebuck,” she said. “The paint has sustained irreversible damage and upon closer evaluation appeared to be severely faded and rubbed away in some cases, possibly caused by aggressive cleaning after the bell tower fire. Other areas of paint loss were due to over painting of original work, in many cases we were able to remove the over paint on decorative areas; however the large areas (background) were painted with white latex semi-gloss paint which would be too costly to remove.
“Through careful consideration with parish representatives, it was determined to restore all areas of paint loss and severe fading. The restorations in these areas are reversible for future conservation. There are some areas where severe damage was not sustained and full restoration was not necessary. The baseboards in the nave and sanctuary were originally stained to match all other trims; however at some point they were painted once with a tan paint and lastly with dark brown paint. Sorellas Studio refinished the baseboards by faux finishing to match existing trims.”
As Clifford and her artists continued their work, they found a number of interesting facts about the 66-year-old artwork. For example, in the church columns.
“Although the columns appear to be mirror images across from each other on the east wall and the west wall of the nave, there are many differences in the way they are designed and rendered,” she said. “This suggests that perhaps, different artists with diverse painting styles worked on similar parts of the project. The leaves on the east columns have saw tooth edges on the leaves, while the leaves on the west columns do not.
“While repairing structural cracks and cleaning the back of the nave in the southeast and southwest corners of the church, we discovered the outlines and underpainting of decorative columns not completed and painted over by the original artists. As the history is told, the artists found out that they were going home and asked for three more days to complete their work, but were unable to complete these columns.
“Each crack or plaster repair had to be completed without trowels in order to avoid destroying the surrounding decorative paint, by packing in plaster by hand or with the use of a hypodermic needle.”
As the project nears its scheduled completion by January, Clifford said her studio is honored to have had this opportunity.
“Sorellas Studio is honored to have the opportunity to conserve and restore the work of Franco di Bello, Achille Cattanei, Dino Gambetti, Mario de Cristofaro, Leonida Gorlato, Carlo Sanvito, Enrico Zorzi, Amedeo Maretto and Spinello Aretino,” she said. “The vision of Father John H. Krukkert to have a colorful church will once again be realized through the artistry of the Italian POWs distinctive and brilliant murals and decorative painting as seen by the beloved parishioners in 1945.”
Father Daniel Dreher has been pastor at St. Mary’s since Sept. 1 and he has seen firsthand the work Sorellas Studios has done to return St. Mary’s to its’ 1945 state, which has resulted in a teaching moment for him.
“I think this project teaches not only the people of Umbarger and the faith community of St. Mary’s, but also the Diocese of Amarillo, the greatest thing that Kim Richard, our diocesan Director of Stewardship and Development has always tried to convey in our United Catholic Appeal,” he said. “What is Church and Stewardship is not just about me and right now, but it’s the planning for the future and the understanding that the gift of Church that we have has been passed down to us and we must pass it on for future generations.
“The restoration work that we are doing right now in Umbarger should be guaranteed to last 75 to 100 years, which means for the youngest members of this church, their grandchildren will be able to see this church in the same state before anything should have to be repainted or touched up again. When you look at it in that perspective, that’s when we look at the Apostles and the eyes of Faith, especially in this Year of Faith of how we pass the faith down. We not only have to conserve what we have now, but then pass it down for generations to come, which is exactly what the people of Umbarger have been doing.”