Call it, if you like, the miracle on West 37th Street.
It arrived in an envelope Father Thomas Kallumady, the pastor of Holy Innocents parish opened one morning in the church’s rectory on West 37th Street, just off Broadway.
“We had started a capital campaign in the parish,” Father Kallumady explained. “The day I decided to enter into this project with faith, prayer and a dream, I got an envelope in the mail. I opened it.
Inside was a $100,000 check! This was a true miracle. The person didn’t know I was entering into this project. He was unknown to me. He was not a parishioner but he was coming occasionally to the church and he saw the beauty.”
Father Kallumady’s project was the restoration of the historic mural of Christ’s Crucifixion over the high altar by famed 19th-century Italian-American artist Constantino Brumidi. For those unfamiliar with Brumidi, his work adorns the chamber of the House of Representatives and lines most of the corridors and committee rooms of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Viewed from the floor of the Capitol rotunda, Brumidi’s “Apotheosis of George Washington” crowns the apex of the Capitol dome.
At first glance, Holy Innocents Church would seem an unlikely place to encounter an important work of art or the majesty of the Latin Mass, which is also celebrated here. The neighborhood surrounding the parish is a cluttered hodgepodge of fast-food lunch counters and small souvenir shops just north of Macy’s.
When Father Kallumady first arrived at Holy Innocent in 2007 the first thing he did was to refurbish the church’s aging exterior and repair the roof, which required an emergency loan of $75,000 from the archdiocese. With those necessary repairs done, he began to focus on the soaring interior of the church, which is where the building’s true glory lies. The centerpiece, of course, was the beautiful Brumidi fresco.
“The crucifixion as you can see on the mural is the centerpiece of our worship here,” he said. “Anyone who walks into the church sees the beauty.”
But the fresco was in terrible condition. Years of dirt and soot had accumulated on its surface. Worse still, several ventures to improve on Brumidi’s work had further despoiled the piece; in particular a wrong-headed attempt to “antique” the painting in 1901 by adding a coat of furniture varnish! In another, a bald-headed God the Father received a mop of curly locks from some unknown artist.
“I was much shocked by the state,” Father Kallumady said. “The first thing that distracted me was the poor lighting that was not doing any justice to the painting. And when I looked at it more closely, the deterioration became much more obvious.”
Father Kallumady set out to find a company to restore the painting. Fortunately a parishioner, Donald M. Reynolds, an art historian, put the priest in contact with a restoration company in Maryland, Cunningham Adams Conservation, which is recognized as the leader in Brumidi restorations. In another miracle, they also came in with the lowest bid, $250,000.
“They said it was the right time to restore it, we can’t wait any longer,” Father Kallumady said.
Work was begun in January 2012. The first phase involved cleaning the dirt and conserving the mural’s surface to prevent further deterioration.
Unfortunately, once this stage was completed, Cunningham Adams bowed out, due to the overwhelming demands of a major reclamation project at the Capitol. But before they did, Christiana Cunningham recommended the services of another restoration company, Parma Conservation of Chicago, which completed the job.
“It was humbling, it really was,” Peter Schoenmann of Parma Conservation told CNY of the experience. “As we were removing the veiling layers and getting down to the truth of what Brumidi painted, it was a revelation. It was like discovering a buried treasure.” The final stage of the restoration included the installation of new LED lighting in fall 2012.
The scaffolding came off the refurbished fresco just in time for Christmas Mass. “A few hours before Christmas we got the scaffolding out and when the crowd came in for Christmas everyone was overawed,” Father Kallumady said proudly.
The fully restored fresco appears almost three-dimensional, the colors vibrant. The mural appears to float in suspended animation before an azure background. The first weekend in February, the parish celebrated with a special Forty Hours devotion, concluding on the feast of the first dedication of the historic parish in 1870.
“It’s beautiful, just beautiful,” said Theresa Vincent, an employee at nearby Macy’s who has come to Mass at Holy Innocents every weekday at noon for more than 10 years. “I always look at Jesus when I pray. It just reminds me of heaven. I was sad when they covered it up for a while but now the coloring just brings it out. This was always a holy church. It’s really Catholic and I really feel God’s presence is here.”
Another parishioner, Kathy Millard, works at an accounting firm across 37th Street. She too has been a regular at Mass.
“I think it’s beautiful,” she said. “It was very dark before. It’s a lot brighter. I’m looking for them to continue to paint the church and clean up the stained-glass windows.”
That is, in fact, the next stage. A sign keeping track of the capital campaign at the back of the church indicates that the parish is well on the way to achieving its goal of raising $400,000 to complete renovations. As of Jan. 31, $320,000 had been raised.
The two women are typical of the people who come to Holy Innocents during the busy workweek. Father Kallumady terms it “a commuter church.” But that does not mean it is not flourishing. The day Catholic New York visited for noon Mass the pews were far from empty.
“This church is truly a praying church,” Father Kallumady said. “I am always edified by the people coming to pray during the week, before work, at noon, after work. We sell more than $2,000 in candles every week. That means many people come to pray.” On Ash Wednesday Father Kallumady said more than 10,000 people came for ashes, so many that they ran out and he had to burn extra palms.
But the Church also has another special community. The Latin Mass is also celebrated there daily, at 6 p.m. weekdays, at 1 p.m. Saturdays and at 10 a.m. Sundays attracting a devoted following from throughout the tri-state area. Many are young.
“On special occasions, like Holy Days, we have almost a full church. But other days we have anywhere near 100 people attending Sunday Latin Mass,” he explained. “They are very active and supportive of the parish and that’s what I was looking for, a supporting community. They come from all over: Long Island, New Jersey, some from as far as 80 miles away. They are all welcomed here. And so this is a parish with a difference.”