An artist puts his brush to work in restoring the statues of the cathedral in St. Catharines, Ont. The church celebrates 175 years in 2020. Photos by Bob Foley/Diocese of St. Catharines

Artists work on restoring St. Catherine's cathedral for 175 anniversary

  • September 14, 2019

As Carlos Nunes and his team uncover the visual glories that have been plastered, painted and papered over in historic churches, he can’t help but joke about what that work has meant to him and the livelihood of other fine art restorers.

“I think they were being very kind to the future generation of artists and tradespeople,” he says with a laugh.

But all joking aside, Nunes and his crew from Fine Painting Design Restoration of Innisfil, Ont., take it very seriously when they go into some of Canada’s historic churches and cathedrals to bring back the beauty that in years past was relegated to ancient history.

“Now we’re readdressing the identity of our sacred spaces,” said Nunes.

Nunes’ company is currently undertaking the restoration of St. Catherine of Alexandria Cathedral, the mother church of the Diocese of St. Catharines in Ontario’s Niagara region. The cathedral is on the cusp of its 175th anniversary in 2020 and last year Bishop Gerard Bergie set in place a plan to ensure the cathedral “will be a place of beauty and worship for our entire diocese for many years to come,” he wrote in The Vineyard, the diocesan newspaper.

The cathedral opened its doors for the first time on June 10, 1845 and became the cathedral church of the newly-formed Diocese of St. Catharines on Nov. 25, 1958 (until then it was part of the Archdiocese of Toronto). The last work took place in the mid- to late-1980s.

“Each generation is the caregiver of the cathedral for its successors and now we have the opportunity to play a small part in a story that has been going on for close to 175 years,” said Bergie.

It’s a full interior restoration taking place for the cathedral’s anniversary. Previous renovations saw much of the artwork in the cathedral’s interior covered. Frescoes on the walls were painted over and a mosaic had not one but two sub-floors built over top of it. This is where Nunes and his team come in to undo the work of well-meaning — but ultimately lacking in foresight — protagonists.

“We’ve been uncovering the original designs and we’ve been reinstating them... We’re putting back what was covered over.”

“We’ve been uncovering the original designs and we’ve been reinstating them,” he said. “We’re putting back what was covered over.”

The entire sanctuary is being completely re-marbled, new murals are going up, the Stations of the Cross are being refurbished. “Everything is being worked on,” said Nunes. That includes all new electrical and lighting as well as re-insulating the building.

“Our Pope said let’s bring back the beauty because it’s missing and that’s why we’re busy; it’s what we’re doing.”

Nunes has vast experience on such projects, 99 per cent of them in Catholic churches. It began 21 years ago when he worked on Toronto’s St. Anthony’s Church and since then his team has been involved in restoring the beauty at parishes throughout Toronto and Southern Ontario, including extensive work at Toronto’s St. Paul’s Basilica, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, St. Helen’s and Our Lady Immaculate Basilica in Guelph, Ont. 

It has been painstaking, exhaustive work at St. Catherine of Alexandria since the restoration began in January. Stations of the Cross have been re-painted with stencil designs added, two large medallions have been placed in the vaulted ceiling and specially designed chandeliers unique to the cathedral have been installed. But it’s the restoring of the old works, which many of the cathedral’s parishioners have never seen, that is most time-consuming. 

Take the aforementioned mosaic floor for years hidden by the subfloors. “Part of our restoration is to replicate the missing areas of mosaic and fully restore the existing mosaic,” said Nunes. “So we’re going to have a beautiful new mosaic in place and we’re also restoring the original so you won’t see the difference from one to the other. We have to marry what is being introduced to complement what was there before.”

It’s a fine line the restorers walk to bring justice to the past. There’s colour balance, scales and textures that need to be true to the original, and then there’s the all-important theological balance, said Nunes.

“These materials come with symbols that matter to the faith. It’s very important that they stay true.”

In the end, it sounds like an army of restorers is needed for such a project. True, there are anywhere from 30 to 40 people onsite at any time doing the work, said Nunes, but the key is having the right people.

“At the end of the day you don’t need a large contingency of hands; what you need is the right hands at the right places at the right time,” he said.

That’s getting harder to find each year as the number of specialized tradespeople dwindles. Still, Nunes is amazed at those he finds and “their will to work and to participate in important projects of this type.”

The overall direction must come from above though, and Nunes is pleased to have that with Bergie and the diocese. Their guidance, he said, can’t be underestimated. 

“If that internal committee is there and it’s fortified, things work very, very well.”

Bergie launched a Cathedral Appeal to cover the $1.2-million price tag of the restoration. 

Mary Catherine Reynolds, a financial advisor and volunteer co-chair of the appeal committee, said charitable donations as a whole across Canada have been down in recent years, but she expects better results as year end nears. She knows of some “significant” donations that are “in the pipeline” and said overall the appeal is “doing very well.”

“It’s very important as Catholics that we all see the significance of a higher God, the greater good and the place where we bring together beauty, people and architecture to honour God,” she said. 

It’s hoped all will be ready for the 175th anniversary in June. Meantime, the cathedral remains a work zone during the week and on Friday is handed back to the parish to allow it to continue its spiritual works. 

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