The 19th Century Gothic Crucifix Restoring one of St. Mary's treasures

Referred to as the Bishop John J. Chanche crucifix, it was discovered in the crypt of the basilica hanging high on the wall out of sight, heavily wrapped in plastic. It was “broken and bruised” with old, unprofessional repairs. During a tour for the St Mary Basilica Archive committee, Betsy Holleman was so moved to express that her family would like to have it restored. By coincidence the Conrad Schmitt firm in Wisconsin, which had restored the interior of the basilica in 2001, was restoring the cathedral in Jackson and offered to take on the restoration, and the rest is history.

Because there are no known written records of the crucifix, it is believed to be from the first period of the diocese in Natchez much like the Immaculate Conception shrine in the Bishop’s Prayer Garden, however, it is identified in a late 19th century photograph of the cathedral interior tied on the pillar under the St. Alphonsus statue—the Redemptorist founder. Evidently it was brought out of storage for the lenten period. The top of the fleur-de-lis on the cross had a notch cut out to fit under the bracket holding the St. Alphonsus statue indicating that originally it had occupied another place in the cathedral. The crucifix is not rare, but considered valuable patrimony of the catholic church in Natchez. On May 3, 1869 Bishop William Henry Elder made a rough note concerning a blessed iron nail “which is preserved in the Sacred Feet of the large crucifix…in theCathedral…”

Crucifix on wall of basement in St. Mary Basilica.

The corpus of the crucifix is made of solid plaster and is almost human in scale. The wood cross is about 7’ 3”. Historically, gothic crucifixes of this size are featured suspended in the sanctuary or on the wall of the apse. If it was in the sanctuary of the cathedral, it had a short usage from around 1843 and 1846 when it was replaced by a painting— the arrival of the Immaculate Conception painting from the King and Queen of France in 1846. This painting was requested by Bishop Chanche and he hung it on the wall of the apse in his cathedral. The painting was removed to the Episcopal Residence when the first fresco of the crucifixion was painted (1882) on the apse wall within the high-gothic frame.

So, where did the crucifix come from? As with the painting, an assumption has been made that it came from a catholic country in Europe probably Italy or France. Bishop Chanche had pleaded “..for books, vestments, chalices, everything useful in new missions..”

By J.E. Guercio Chairman SMB Archives June 2017

Cathedral interior as it appeared during the time of Bishop Francis August Janssens (1880–1888). The 19th Century Gothic Crucifix is outlined in red.
Francis August Janssens fourth bishop of Natchez.

Restoration of the Crucifix and Corpus

Restoration of the crucifix and corpus was completed by Will Kolstad of Conrad Schmitt Studios. The restoration began on May 4, 2012 and was completed on May 11.

Conrad Schmitt Studios was founded in Milwaukee in 1889 by Conrad Schmitt, the son of Bavarian immigrants. The firm remained in the Schmitt family until 1953, at which time it was purchased by long-time employee, Bernard O. Gruenke. Today, the third generation of the Gruenke family is involved in the company, a reflection of the dedication and longevity which typifies the Conrad Schmitt Studios.

The Studio’s roots can be traced to ecclesiastical and decorative art, stained glass, and interior design. Preserving the past through comprehensive investigation, analysis, and documentation is a vital component of the Studio’s business. Conrad Schmitt Studios has conserved stained glass windows designed by famous artists such as Louis Comfort Tiffany, Thomas O’Shaughnessy, John LaFarge, F.X. Zettler, and Mayer of Munich; and restored theatres designed by architects Rapp & Rapp, John Eberson, C. Howard Crane, and Thomas Lamb, and religious and secular buildings designed by Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and others.

In addition to conservation and restoration, the Studio has designed and created art glass and interiors for buildings of architectural and historic significance throughout the country and abroad, including basilicas, cathedrals, churches, synagogues, theatres, train stations, hotels, universities, state capitols, and government buildings.

Will Kolstad artist and restoration expert with Conrad Schmitt Studios.
Father David O'Connor observes the artist Will Kolstad at work.
St. Mary Basilica Archive committee members Patricia Piazza Murphy, Mary Bellan Eidt, Betsy Dale Holleman and James E. Guercio, Chairman of the committee watching the artist Will Kolstad.
Tools of the trade.
Click any image to start slideshow.
Betsy Dale Holleman with her granddaughter.
Pat Brandon Dale, Father David O'Connor and Betsy Dale Holleman.
Walter Maier and Tommy Norris were instrumental in the completion of the project.
Will Kolstad adds a final touch to the crucifix.
Raising the crucifix for placement on the wall.
The restoration was completed on May 11, 2012.
The restored crucifix is displayed in the Great Hall of the Father David O’Connor Family Life Center, located in Natchez, Mississippi.

St. Mary Basilica and its parishioners are grateful to the Wilton and Pat Brandon Dale family for their generous contribution that made possible the beautiful restoration of St. Mary's 19th Century Gothic Crucifix.

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St. Mary Basilica Archives

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