The historic murals of St. Ninian’s Cathedral in Antigonish, N.S. are being restored. Michelle Gallinger and her team have spent the past few summers painstakingly removing paint and plaster that had covered the murals. Photo by Marah James

Antigonish’s St. Ninian’s Cathedral restoring murals to former glory

  • November 14, 2020

Ozias Leduc (1864-1955) earned so much acclaim for his religious and secular paintings that the native of Saint-Hilaire-de-Rouville, Que., was heralded in his time as “the Michelangelo of Canada.’

Very few can rival Michelle Gallinger’s intimate knowledge about the ethereal qualities and nuances that have led to Leduc’s body of work standing the test of time. After all, Gallinger has devoted the better part of a decade towards restoring the murals Leduc — recognized by the Government of Canada as a national historical figure in 2019 — painted at St. Ninian’s Cathedral in Antigonish, N.S., in 1902.

Gallinger marvels at the painter’s vibrancy. 

“He paints with such beautiful, beautiful subtle colours, glazes and scumbles,” gushes Gallinger, an art conservator and restorer from Dartmouth, N.S. “There is such serenity and feral feeling in his paintings.”

Leduc adorned the walls and columns in the nave of this historic house of worship — which dates back to 1874 — with the 12 apostles, St. John the Baptist, St. Cecilia and two angels holding tablets.

Alas, renovations required for the stone cathedral in 1937 included a fresh covering of paint for the cathedral’s interior. That first layer covered up some of the murals, and successive facelifts over the years led to Leduc’s masterworks being buried under seven layers of paint and two more of plaster. Limited physical features of the saints remained visible, which spawned “the floating saints” moniker.

An exploratory committee first contacted Gallinger about a St. Ninian’s conservation project in 1999. However, the restoration was not given the go-ahead until years later as a cost and technical analysis and an audit of the murals’ historical significance were needed.

Around 2003, Gallinger was asked to examine the murals after a steam leak in the cathedral caused some layers of paint to flake and peel away, which meant parts of Leduc’s work were being removed too.

The restoration committee became active again in 2012, but didn’t go truly full bore until a couple years after Fr. Donald MacGillivary’s installation as parish rector in 2013.

It was determined that the magic number to conserve one of the saints or angels would be approximately $40,000. Around $80,000 is required annually to contract Gallinger and her team to work on two saints per summer. The congregation reached the fundraising goal line in four of the past five summers.

“It is all paid for by individuals,” said Gallinger. “There is no corporate, no institutional or no church money going into this. Isn’t that amazing? The church money has to be used on parts of the cathedral that are a priority like the roof, seating and now the COVID-19 precautions.”

MacGillivary said every major contributor over the years has requested anonymity for their contributions to the project. In the fall of 2019, a patron equipped the cathedral with $400,000 to make various upgrades to the sanctuary, including resurfacing the floor and restoring the two angels on the outside arch of the sanctuary door.

“Restoring the angels wasn’t even originally a part of our plans, but because of this donation we were able to do that,” said MacGillivary. Other donations enabled two saints to be restored this past summer. Each depiction requires five-six weeks to restore.

The priest was wowed by the restoration of one of the angels that was essentially missing a hand.

“Each of our conservators is so highly skilled at her craft and you can tell they are excited to meet any artistic challenge. The restorations are simply stunning and our parishioners are going to be extremely impressed when the work is done.”

There indeed is great appreciation for the efforts of Gallinger and conservator colleagues Winnifred Daley and Brittany Houghton as they’ve engaged in laborious nine-hour days atop a scaffold in unrelentingly hot conditions. They are involved in a race against the clock to complete the restoration as peelings in the wall each year cause more elements of Leduc’s work to be lost.

“You’re working 40 feet up in scaffolding, and it is the original Leduc painting peeling away from the wall along with all the layers on top of it,” explains Gallinger. “We have to steam, glue, humidify and use tacking irons to stick the whole thing back to the wall before we can start peeling off the top layers. We have to do this in the warmest temperatures possible because it makes the paint soft and pliable.

“In August, it was over 40 degrees up there with steamers and tacking irons going. And we were wearing full protective gear because we were using solvents like acetone. We had to use solvent masks.”

Clinical precision was required for the gluing process. If they didn’t nail the sticking process, Leduc’s work and the paint on top would fall 40 feet and be unrecoverable.

“We have to reframe those areas,” said Gallinger. “It is not as much of an issue, per se, to lose a bit of the stenciling areas, but it is when you lose bits of the original Leduc. They are right now the ‘floating saints,’ but every year, there are more issues up there.”

Marah James, who studies English and history at the University of King’s College in Halifax, is the crew’s spokesperson, assistant and official photographer. She routinely puts together collages of photos for display in the cathedral entranceway to encourage more donations.

“It is really cool. For one of the angels — there is a female and male — when we got here, we could only see the male angel’s eye,” she said. “It was like he was peeking out behind the paint. I kept taking pictures each morning, and now it is like something you haven’t seen before. It is glorious and truly a work of God.”

James has observed Gallinger, Daley and Houghton in their zone.

“The three conservators up on the scaffolding are so passionate about their work that it really makes everything interesting. If they lose half an inch of paint off of their painting they would be upset. They talk to their painting like it’s listening,” said James.

Gallinger and her team wrapped up their 2020 work in late October, and await word if enough money will be raised to continue their work next summer.

Ultimately, the total cost of the project is $500,000. Seven saints remain to be saved — costing $280,000 — and the goal is to complete this quest by 2024, the 150th anniversary of St. Ninian’s Cathedral.

There are already positive developments with fundraising. McGillivray said a man has offered to pay for half the remaining costs by volunteering to match up to $140,000 raised after hearing the story during a CBC interview. MacGillivary is hoping such interviews, word of mouth and photo galleries depicting the step-by-step progress will inspire more pledges.

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