In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places. Details are at www.maplecornermedia.com.
Matt Strong delights in the story behind this little church, Blessed Sacrament, sandwiched among the array of restaurants, lodges and ski shops running up Stowe’s busy Mountain Road to the resort slopes.
He turns to a metaphor to describe how the low-slung church, which makes him think of a Polynesian mission chapel, has “fingers” that touch people from the past, like Ira Dutton, who was born on this site, and noteworthy figures from afar, from places like Belgium, France and Austria. Not to mention Hawaii.
With his own fingers, on a sunny September day, he’s running a hand sander across the church’s front door.
As he has on other clement mornings over the past four years, Strong is working to restore the art of French-born Andre Girard, a famous artist whose murals have graced Blessed Sacrament’s exterior walls since the church was built 65 years ago.
One door to go and this rehab project by Strong, a master woodcarver from Craftsbury, will be done. And it should be good for another 20 or 30 years – until the sun, wind and snow take their expected toll.
Strong drops the sander and offers a visitor a tour.
This will be the full 360, a trip around the building to inspect the artistry of Girard, who in 1948 was invited to tell – with bold strokes of black paint on the white pine siding – the story of Dutton and Belgium-born Father Damien, the religious pair who more than a century ago cared for the sick at the leper colony on the Hawaiian Island of Molokai.
The two worked together for just three years before Damien himself died of leprosy in 1889, leaving Dutton to serve the colony for several decades.
Their good works were recognized at the time by the likes of such disparate figures as Robert Louis Stevenson, Mahatma Gandhi and President Teddy Roosevelt. Four years ago, Father Damien was declared a saint by the Vatican.
The murals are head-turners. At first glance from, say, the window of a passing car, one might guess vandals had just splashed graffiti on the church’s walls. A close look, however, reveals serious art, modern-primitive expressions of real events. The large figures, angular and austere, in tropical surroundings, are dealing with the everyday agonies of their disease but experiencing hope thanks to their religion.
“There’s Damien greeting Dutton,” explains Strong, pointing to the first of a dozen murals, a buoyant welcoming scene that’s tempered by the presence of leprosy. Other panels show people with hand and facial lesions receiving the sacraments.
Girard, as it turns out, was abundantly familiar with suffering, though of the human-inflicted variety. He was an accomplished designer of posters in pre-war Paris, until the Nazi Occupation. He arrived in America during the war, and in the U.S. soon became known for his religious paintings and decorative works on churches in New York, California, and, as it turned out, Vermont.
Dutton, in Girard’s final panel on the church’s west side, receives his due. The mural depicts him in 1908, on the shoreline, receiving a full-gun salute from naval vessels sent to Molokai to honor him on orders of President Teddy Roosevelt.
Dutton was born in Stowe, and raised in Wisconsin, where his family moved when he was 4. As a young adult, Dutton taught school, then, in the Civil War, saw combat with a Wisconsin regiment, but also spent weeks tending to the wounded and burying the dead.
After the war, he married, divorced, had problems with “John Barleycorn” (his words), quit drinking, joined a monastery, and then, for penance, eventually traveled to Molokai to meet and help Damien.
Blessed Sacrament owes its location and artwork to Dutton, but also to a Father Francis McDonough, who in the late ‘40s was pastor of Holy Cross Church in nearby Morrisville.
Asked by the Catholic bishop of Vermont to consider possible spots for a new church in Stowe, McDonough fell for a site that once was part of the Dutton Farm. McDonough lobbied hard for the place, but the bishop rejected it for various reasons, including the price.
And now here’s that Austrian connection.
Enter Maria von Trapp of Stowe, family matriarch, refugee with children from pre-war Austria, head of the Trapp Family Singers, celebrated figure in the “Sound of Music,” devout Catholic, and, as it turns out, someone who could influence a bishop. She too liked the proposed site and got in her car to pay the bishop a visit.
“Deo gracias! Allelulia, allelulia! You must start building as of yesterday!” McDonough quoted her as saying in a phone call from Burlington immediately after the bishop’s concession.
The site was purchased for $2,500, and Blessed Sacrament was built for $14,000.
Through McDonough’s connections in New York City, Girard was invited to visit the new church, maybe even provide some artwork. He arrived in Stowe with friends in an old school bus outfitted with bunks and a kitchen; he liked what he saw and made and made an artistic offer that was accepted.
Girard produced the murals and painted 36 church windows, the latter in vibrant colors, depicting scenes from the New Testament.
Upon request, Strong switches on the lights of the church’s dark interior to reveal still another medium employed by Girard at Blessed Sacrament: 14 oil-on-canvas paintings of “Stations of the Cross,” all dramatic representations of Christ’s brutal march to Golgotha for crucifixion.
These paintings, done with lively strokes to convey motion and emotion, were the surprise gifts to the church from a couple, Girard’s friends, who owned the paintings and who had accompanied him on his initial visit to Stowe.
Strong says people often stop by to see what he’s up to outside the church. ”They come from all over … Australia, Germany, California and, of course, Canada,” says Strong, now standing in the church parking lot.
As if on cue, a car with New Hampshire plates enters the driveway and glides around the church. Its driver exits, produce a business card, leaves a $20 donation for the church and explains he’s checking a route for his tour bus business.
Heading back to sand at the front door, Strong explains that this four-year project has not been the first restoration of Girard’s work. Back in the ‘70s an artist by the name of Josephine Belloso, a teacher at St. Joseph’s College in New York, who once studied under Girard, spent two years refreshing his works at Blessed Sacrament.
But it was time for another re-do, and Strong was hired.
Strong says he has occasionally struggled hard to locate Girard’s original brush strokes, so he could recreate them with accuracy.
In the midst of such confusion one day, a woman dropped by, mentioned she had worked with Belloso at the church in ’74 and that she knew of the existence of high-quality photographs of the murals as Girard had painted them.
The photos became his blueprint for several panels.
“Now tell me there’s not a God in heaven,” Strong says with a laugh, referring to the coincidence of the woman’s passing by on a day he was there, and all the other historic and artistic events that touched Blessed Sacrament.