Century-old church mural restored in time for Easter

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The Rev. Anthony Bus looked skyward and wept inside St. Stanislaus Kostka Church.

The faces, gestures and colors on the massive mural painted high above the church’s altar — long muted by layers of soot and grime — suddenly shouted.

The jewel of the iconic Catholic church — which nestles the Kennedy Expressway just north of Division Street — once again crawled with the same life imbued by its renowned creator, Tadeusz Zukotynski, the moment he set down his paintbrush in 1899.

And just in time for Easter.

“It’s as if the church has been reborn,” Bus said.

The transformation began in early February when a donor walked into Bus’ office with a plan to restore the domed mural entitled “The Triumph of the Risen Christ.”

Things moved quickly. Scaffolding went up. And a team of five restoration artists began their daily climb of 50 feet.

“Our goal is to get to the truth,” said restorationist Peter Schoenmann. “No one had seen the truth since 1899.”

A Polish artist of international renowned, Zukotynski’s work can be found in several Chicago churches with Polish roots, including St. John Cantius and the Basilica of St. Hyacinth. But many consider his domed mural of St. Stanislaus his masterpiece.

For two months, the restoration team, heads cocked up and battling neck kinks, wiped away grime, removed the dark varnish of an earlier, misguided restoration effort and meticulously glued down peeling paint.

Bus (pronounced BUSH) referred to the artists perched high above as “angels.”

Schoenmann and his wife, Elizabeth Kendall, who run Parma Conservation out of an old piano factory in Pilsen, walked into the church 20 years ago on a whim to see the mural and thought “Wouldn’t it be fun to work on that.”

To Bus, who serves as pastor and has been at St. Stanislaus for 28 years, this isn’t a fun little coincidence.

It’s a chapter in the church’s survival story authored by God.

Another was written in the 1950s. St. Stanislaus became known as “the church that moved an expressway” after parishioners defeated city planners who wanted to demolish St. Stanislaus to make way for a new highway. Instead, the Kennedy Expressway curves around it.

Another chapter is set in 1999, a time when the church was in such a state of disrepair that the archdiocese considered closing it.

“I was trying to get grant money to fix it up at the time, and I was praying, and I just felt like I can’t do it anymore, like it’s beyond salvation ,and I just heard a voice,” Bus said.

“It was the Virgin Mary. It was beautiful. It was clear as you talking to me, and she said, ‘Give me the parish, make me mother and queen of the parish.”

He wasted no time in dedicating the parish to her.

“Three days later, I got a call from the archdiocese telling me we’d been awarded a million-dollar grant to begin immediate restoration,” he said.

The church was built in 1871 to serve Polish immigrants.

Zukotynski’s mural was added at a time when St. Stanislaus had grown into one of the largest parishes in the world, with 40,000 members, 12 Sunday Masses and 70 school nuns.

It’s smaller now and more diverse. Masses are held in English, Polish and Spanish.

Bus hopes the newly restored mural will be a source of inspiration.

“This image reminds us that there is victory in the battle,” he said. “That there is light beyond the darkness, and there is life beyond the grave.”

For anyone who wants to stop by for a peek, the church is open 24 hours a day.

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