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Long-hidden Celtic art in South Buffalo church slowly comes back to life

A church in the heart of South Buffalo holds hidden ancient art that is being revealed slowly by restoration experts intent on preserving a sacred glimpse from the past.

The Celtic drawings that adorn the walls of the former Holy Family Church on South Park Avenue survived more than a century and were lost since the '60s under several coats of paint until recently, when workers moved a safe and uncovered a key to the past.

A 1935 edition of the Buffalo Times reawakened the mystery, depicting the former church interior as it once was decorated with intricate gilded drawings by Danish master Frode C.V. Rambusch.

“This is the highest standard of ecclesiastic art – the best work done in America under those layers of paint,” said restoration expert Henry Swiatek.  “As we go through churches that have been decorated, they are mostly based on a Renaissance model.  These designs predate that period by at least 500 to 600 years.”

The artwork being revealed by Swiatek was painted after Rambusch’s work was dirtied by decades of pollution from steel plants, church candles and incense, said church archivist Eileen M. Charleton.

Parishioners who attended the church in the 196os have no recollection of the Celtic art that appeared on the walls behind the side altars, the main altar and other areas throughout the church.

“I’m stunned, dumbfounded and pained over it," said Audrey Kunz, 67, who graduated from Holy Family School in 1966.

Henry Swiatek works on a cross behind the altar. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Removing the paint that covers the artwork  is an arduous task, similar to removing wallpaper by applying chemical solvents to the walls, said Swiatek.

“I vaporize the layers of paint and scrape it away. There is always a danger of taking the Rambusch art with it,” said Swiatek. “You’re left with the residual and a small paint loss, so you have to identify the colors and replace what’s been lost. We were experimenting with small areas to see what we could get back. We don’t want to destroy it, obviously. The rest we consider color-blocking.”

That job falls to Steven Rovner, who earned a master’s degree in art from the University of Pennsylvania. Rovner restores detail to the faces of angels and the Circles of Lilies, located above the church’s side altars.

Ancient Celtic art involves intricate repeating patterns that in a church could define infinity. The gilding was followed by the application of other colors – green, red, blue, brown and white — a process called polychroming, Swiatek explained.

“The designs are symmetrically executed on a grid and drawn from point to point, and they would inject a religious symbol,” said Swiatek, pointing to a cross. “There is a reason for each symbol.”

A cross on the right side of the altar is partially completed. On the left is the blue paint that was covering everything that had to be stripped off. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Rambusch created murals in the sanctuary adapted from the Book of Kells. In the nave, artwork is based on the Book of Lindisfarne, said Frank Kowsky, distinguished professor emeritus at SUNY Buffalo State.

Born in Copenhagen, Rambusch was a Celtic art enthusiast whose work was an atonement for the destruction wrought on Ireland by his ancestors, he told the church's first pastor, according to Charleton.

The church, built in 1908 and designed by Lansing & Beierl, was constructed during the beginning of a golden era in Buffalo manufacturing. The Pan-American Exposition had concluded, and the city drew an abundance of gifted architects and artists whose work is revered worldwide.

The Rambusch studio, located in New York, remains in business today. The interior artwork was completed from 1909 to 1913.

Holy Family is not the only church locally to receive the studio's artwork. The former St. John the Evangelist on Seneca Street and St. Gerard on Delavan Avenue contained art from the Rambusch studio.

The Rambusch studio remained active over the years and provided artwork for the lobby of Empire State Building.

All the area painted blue, including the ceiling has the Celtic work by Rambusch underneath. Photo taken, Monday, July 29, 2019. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Holy Family Church was consolidated with St. Ambrose and St. Agatha churches in 2010 to form Our Lady of Charity Parish. Masses are still conducted at Holy Family.

Holy Family School with an enrollment of 1,500 was once the largest in the Diocese of Buffalo. The former school now serves as senior apartments and a food pantry.

Swiatek spent decades on scaffolding and ladders restoring in churches throughout the Northeast. His business, Swiatek Studios on Main Street in Clarence, was founded after World War II by his father and uncle.

Swiatek, 72, is semiretired. His son Brett Swiatek, 35, is running the operation, but the elder Swiatek has been working at Holy Family since March.

“I knew the artwork was here,” he said. “When my wife passed away recently, I came to the realization that we’re only here for a finite amount of time. We live our lives like we will go on forever, and there are certain things I would like to see finished.”

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