“This painting is truly priceless,” Father Dwight Schlaline, pastor of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Hanover, said as he watched a dedicated crew of five artisans prepare to remove a 15-by-25-foot oil painting in the historic church. The painting depicts the apparition of Christ to French Sister, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, over a two year period in the 1670s. The appearance of Christ inspired the devotion to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, which soon after spread across the globe.
The painting dates back to 1887, when it was erected around the centennial of the church which was completed in 1787 – the same year the U.S. Constitution was debated and written some 90 miles west in Philadelphia. The colonial church is the oldest church in America, built entirely of stone, and it is the first in the country to be dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Before the current church was built, Jesuit priest Father William Wappler arrived in Conewago in 1741 and began celebrating Holy Mass in a stone chapel near the site of the church, which sits on a prominent hill a few miles outside of McSherrystown in Adams County. In 1962, Pope John the XXIII named the church a minor basilica.
When you drive across Route 116 east from Gettysburg, though you are still five miles from the church, you can peer across the farmland and see the stately stone church and distinct white steeple grace the landscape, just as it has for the entire history of the Unites States. George Washington was a nine-year-old boy riding horses with his father at Ferry Farm, Virginia, when the Catholic faithful began gathering for Mass in Conewago. Today, there are parishioners worshiping here that date back 10 generations to those pre-American Revolution colonial years.
The painting and two other smaller ones that graced the side altars were badly in need of restoration given their age and exposure to time. The 1880s was the golden age of cyclorama paintings, and though these paintings are not on that scale, the canvas and oil is of the genre. Over time, filth, soot and moisture caused the canvas to sag and dim in luster. The restoration will return the paintings to its striking appearance.
Evergreene Architectural Arts of Washington, D.C., was chosen to do the work, and Father Schlaline said the initial planning process was begun under former pastor, Father John Howard, before Father Schlaline took over the helm in the fall of 2020. “It took a few phone calls on my part, but then the process got going to figure out how to get this painting down.”
The removal of the painting was a complicated process, taking the better part of three days to accomplish. It was a painstaking process that required a series of pulleys, ropes and guide straps all rigged around a constructed wooden frame that allowed the artisans to lower the 1,000-pound plus painting, inch by inch. The canvas itself weighs an estimated 200 lbs., and the solid, ornate oak frame is the real heft. It was a picture of determined teamwork and collaboration by the artisans to overcome the snags and setbacks faced to lower the painting flat under a platform.
Once down, the painting was rolled up and transported back to Washington, where the restoration should be completed by late summer. That’s only a brief moment of time given this parish’s remarkable storied history and nearly 300-year-old presence in southern Pennsylvania.
(Photos by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)
By Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness