South Buffalo's hidden Celtic treasure at Holy Family

by Eileen M. Charleston
Mon, Jul 15th 2019 01:00 pm

Believe it or not, Our Lady of Charity Parish's Holy Family worship site has a Celtic art treasure hidden beneath four coats of paint. On March 23, Henry Swiatek, Stacy Udave and Steven Rovner of Swiatek Studios in Clarence, spoke to a fascinated assembly of over 100 persons showing a small sample of the art he painstakingly uncovered in the sanctuary and near the Mary Altar.

An article that appeared in the Buffalo Courier-Express in January 1935, was headlined "South Park Church Only One in U.S. with Real Ancient Irish Decoration." The news article explained that artwork from the Book of Kells and the Book of Lindisfarne were incorporated in the interior decor of the church by Frode Rambusch, a noted Danish artist, who was one of the pre-eminent church decorators in the United States. The Rambusch Company has worked on churches, cathedral and basilicas across the United Stated including the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.

The cornerstone of the church at the corner of South Park Avenue and  Tifft Street  was laid in 1905 by Bishop Charles Colton. Upon its completion of the church in 1908 it was painted a plain color with minimum decoration until the pastor, Msgr. John Nash, and parish leaders decided what they wanted. According to the article in the Buffalo Courier-Express, Rambusch approached the pastor with the idea of incorporating Celtic designs in the Church.

Rambusch had been a student of ancient Celtic art for many years and had travelled to Ireland several times to do research. It was the highly intricate and symbolic designs of Celtic art that captured Rambusch's imagination. He was eager to reproduce some of the designs in the Church.
Interestingly, it had been the Danish and Norse marauders who had pillaged Ireland, destroying much of the flourishing art in the Celtic monasteries. Now, it was a Dane who would bring them back to life in America. In his 1935 article, Stephen V. Feeley wrote: "It is poetic justice that a Dane gave Buffalo, and perhaps the United States, its most authentic restoration of ancient Celtic art."

The sources of Rambusch's inspiration were the Book of Kells and the Book of Lindisfarne, hand-written books of the Gospels with ornate Celtic artwork. The Book of Kells may have been the work of eighth-century scribes in the monastery founded by St. Columba (Columcille) on the Isle of Iona off the western coast of Scotland. The Book of Lindisfarne, also an eighth-century work, is from the island monastery off the coast of Northumbria in northeastern England founded by St. Aidan. Rambusch and his assistants worked tirelessly to reproduce the designs and colors of the ancient books as faithfully as possible.

To develop the intricate designs, Rambusch worked with a technique called polychroming. In the process an entire wall is gilded; then colors are applied to the gilding to create a three-dimensional effect. Iconic colors, which have religious symbolism, are used giving the entire work, the designs and the colors, a unified religious significance.

 Over the course of the past hundred years, the interior of the church has been painted several times, covering the original artwork. As a matter of fact, Henry Swiatek worked with his oldest son, Christopher, on the 1993 re-decorating project. While painting, they were amazed to discover ornate Celtic designs underneath several layers of paint. This serendipitous discovery inspired him to learn more about the original interior of the church and the techniques employed by Rambusch. His enthusiasm has been passed on to his daughter, Stacey, and his son, Brett, who wholeheartedly embrace their father's passion.

Swiatek uses the example of his grandmother who raised him. She donated from her meager housekeeper salary to help build Corpus Christi Church. He iterated that returning a church to its original decor honors our ancestors in faith who sacrificed so much to build and decorate their parish churches in the traditions of their culture. And so, we hope to do with Holy Family worship site to honor our Irish immigrant ancestors and give glory to God.

There was great enthusiasm among participants for proceeding with this enormous task and the first donations were gratefully accepted. Among upcoming events to be scheduled are tours of the church with talks about Celtic art; presentations by speakers steeped in knowledge of the Book of Kells and the Book of Lindisfarne; and other topics related to the church. Watch local papers for articles and further information.  

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