Long-hidden historic murals in Antigonish cathedral to be revealed

·3 min read
A member of Michelle Gallinger's restoration team puts varnish on a mural of a saint in St. Ninian's Cathedral. The varnish will preserve Ozias Leduc's original work for decades.  (Robert Guertin/CBC - image credit)
A member of Michelle Gallinger's restoration team puts varnish on a mural of a saint in St. Ninian's Cathedral. The varnish will preserve Ozias Leduc's original work for decades. (Robert Guertin/CBC - image credit)

People will be able to see a significant piece of Canadian art history for the first time in decades later this week after a race against time to save the work.

The walls of St. Ninian's Cathedral in Antigonish, N.S., have been hiding murals by Quebec Painter Ozias Leduc for decades.

Leduc came to Antigonish in 1902, adorning the walls and ceilings of the cathedral with elaborate pieces.

But just three decades later, the church started covering some of the work. Most of the murals were hidden under seven layers of paint.

"It is the only church in Atlantic Canada that has his paintings in it," said Michelle Gallinger, the fine arts conservator who was tasked with saving the work.

"He's important to Canada with his historic significance as our premier church painter — our Michelangelo of Canada."

Robert Short/CBC
Robert Short/CBC

The church started raising hundreds of thousands of dollars through private donations.

Its goal was to save the 14 saints that line the columns, as well as two angels at the front of the church. Every time it had enough money to save a few saints, Gallinger was called in.

The challenge was enormous.

There was a steam leak at St. Ninian's, which caused the paint to curl and flake, bringing down pieces of the murals with it.

"About 10 years ago we had a lot of flakes coming down, even during the service," said Ernst Schuegraf, chair of the art restoration committee.

"Not only little ones, but big ones. Hand-sized ones. We had to do something."

Robert Guertin/CBC
Robert Guertin/CBC

Gallinger started on her first saint in 2015. Two years ago, the restoration funds started running out. She feared the final three saints would not be finished in time to save them.

St. John, in particular, was a concern.

"Probably about 80 per cent of him was unstable," she said. "If you would had put your hand against it, it would have shattered and fallen to the ground, that's how unstable he was."

Robert Guertin/CBC
Robert Guertin/CBC

But an anonymous donor came to the rescue. The person had seen a report by CBC News on the project and offered to pay half the bill for the remaining work as long as the church could match it.

"They were a godsend," said Schuegraf, who says the donation is in the range of $140,000.

His committee quickly spread the work and local groups including the Knights of Columbus and St. Ninian's Foundation came up with the rest.

He doesn't know the identity of the donor, but has a message for them: "I would say thank you and come and look at what you've done."

Gallinger expects the saints to be completed this week. Once the scaffolding comes down, people will finally be able to see Leduc's saints and angels.

"We've been wanting this for so long."

Carolyn Ray/CBC
Carolyn Ray/CBC

While the main goal is complete, the walls of St. Ninian's still hold many secrets.

Leduc's eye of God, lamb of God and Holy Spirit murals remain covered on the ceiling, among other things.

Some have been covered for so long, no photographs exist of the originals. No one knows what they look like.

It's Gallinger's dream that the church will one day raise enough money to bring her back to find out.

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