A workman completes the installation of one of the cathedral’s new confessionals. Photo courtesy of Concrete Pictures Inc.

The divine is in the details

By  Marlena Loughheed, Catholic register special
  • September 23, 2016

For six months, Mila Tereshchenko has begun her work day with prayer. As a gilder, her job is to quite literally make things shine by applying 24-karat gold leafing to various architectural elements of St. Michael’s Cathedral. Given the prayer that goes into her work and the beauty that comes out of it, it’s clear the divine is in the details.

For example, the original plan for the cathedral’s prominent east window was to outline it in gold paint. But Tereshchenko wanted a “wow factor,” so she quietly developed a plan to apply gold leafing. She was so convinced that this was the only finish worthy of the cathedral, she donated $50,000 worth of materials to make it happen. The result: “It’s not just nice; it’s amazing,” she said.

Trained in the Ukraine and Russia where gold leafing is a prominent architectural feature, Tereshchenko has been an artist for 55 years. Her work adds a subtle, beautiful touch to buildings around the world, including Germany and Spain. Since immigrating to Canada 16 years ago, she has been blessed with many opportunities and considers her donation to the cathedral a show of gratitude for the many gifts she’s received in this country.

For the cathedral project she worked with a team of women from Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Canada who share her passion for art. They were trained by Tereshchenko, who has taught a speciality finishing class at the International Painters Union for a decade.

The process of gilding, which can be seen on the tabernacle, the reredos (wooden screen behind the altar), the Cardinal’s chair and accents throughout the cathedral, is arduous. To avoid dust from construction, the team worked only at night, cleaning and sanding surfaces using 2,000 grit sandpaper, applying gold leafing, cleaning the surface again and, finally, applying lacquer.

This same attention to detail is evident in many facets of the cathedral restoration. Soroush Mahmoodi, from an architectural wood carving company called Art for Everyday, had about 45 people working full-time for eight months to complete millwork on the windows, confessionals and traceries on the walls. The woodwork in the cathedral is carved from solid white oak. Most was done by machine, but it all required hand finishing.

Vince Parolin of Art Magic has been involved in the restoration since 2012. His job is to bring together the overall vision of the architects by co-ordinating the artists involved in the gilding and millwork.

He calls the cathedral restoration one of the most rewarding projects he’s ever worked on.

“It proves to our trade that we’re still capable of this kind of (historical) work,” he said. “With carvings and gold leafing, this brings us back to old-world carpentry.”

Head of construction Marc Ferguson of Buttcon Limited, echoes Parolin’s appreciation for the detail in the cathedral’s finishes. While some modern architecture exists to be shocking, the subtlety and unity of the millwork and gold detailing creates an element of beauty that is designed to add to the experience of prayer, rather than to distract from it.

The average visitor to St. Michael’s Cathedral may not know much about reredos, traceries or gilding — they’re not common terms or easily identified by most of us. But maybe that’s the point. The details of an experience of God or of prayer can’t always be put into words.

In the cathedral, as in life, the divine dwells in the details.

(Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Buttcon Limited's head of contruction Marc Ferguson as the head architect)

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