"Here is the church....here is the steeple...."

A large commission painting of a local vintage church is currently in progress in my studio. As I work on this painting I’m reminded of a toddler’s hand game my mom taught my brothers and me when we were small, and wonder if children still learn this. She had us mesh our fingers with fingertips down, the opposite of the praying hands finger position and then, with fingers still meshed, bring our palms close together. We would then chant “Here is the church,” quickly extricate our index fingers and point them heavenward with fingers tips together as we quickly said, “Here is the steeple!” And the last step, with ours fingers still meshed,  was to turn our hands inside out with all of our fingers sticking upward as we said, “And here are the people!”

Given the size and complexity of this commission, I have had plenty time for “Here is the church, here is the steeple, and HERE are the people” to replay itself over and over in my head.  What was initially a pleasant memory as I worked, has by this time come to be like an annoying melody that is stuck in my head.

The oversized watercolor paper, stapled to an even larger piece of plywood, is really too large to comfortably fit on my painting table. In fact, it doesn’t fit at all! It sticks over the edge on 3 sides, and I need to be careful it doesn’t overbalance on any of the edges and slide off with a crash. The reach to see and paint details accurately in the middle of the painting is a challenge.  It would be foolhardy to set anything on the surface of the painting as I work. But if I set my tools off to the side, moving a brush dripping with water or pigment to and from both my water container and palette has its own dangers. My solution has been to put a large piece of clean watercolor paper over part of the painting and set my water, palette, and other supplies on it.

St. Joe’s Catholic Church is neo-Gothic in style, and in spite of its age and obvious structural issues, still beautiful both inside and out. The very tall, pointed steeple with a cross at the very top is a landmark in this community. The tolling bell at the start of mass has the unmistakable sound of an old, metal bell - the kind of bell that requires someone to climb rickety wood steps or maybe even a ladder into the steeple to heave on a rope to ring the bell.

I’ve long admired this church during the years I’ve lived in this small town. But it was only recently that I learned a surprising thing. The red brick church is not what it appears to be. The church was built of a soft brick that must be covered with a plaster façade. What appears to be brick is actually a plaster coating, first painted red, then white lines painted to give the appearance of white mortar over the entire building. How many miles of painted white lines must have been applied to that church!

Sadly, this church has served its useful life. It is crumbling, and can no longer be saved. It will be razed this spring to make way for a new church to be built. St. Joe’s is not my church, but I share the grief of the congregation that has made this decision. The sadness intensified for me as I visited the quiet church, completely alone, a number of times in the last months, taking numerous pictures both inside and out.

I might have finished this blog with “There was the church, There was the steeple….” But on a numbing, sub-zero day this last week, as I was taking still more photos inside the sanctuary, my friend Kim happened in. She is a member of St. Joe’s, stopped to chat, and pointed out the diagram for the new church, posted in the entry. She told me that the prominent steeple of the old church will be an important feature of the new as well, and It warmed me to notice that the new steeple will look very much like the old.

Today I am sharing a photograph of a detail of this lovely old building.