Several years ago, the best thing that could have happened to my boyhood church in Pennsylvania did in fact happen. One evening the pastor entered the church, turned on the light switch, heard the pop of a short circuit, and peered into an impenetrable cloud of smoke. He ran out of the church and called the fire department. But there had been no fire. The smoke came from tons of plaster that had crashed fifty feet to the floor. The ceiling had collapsed.
Saint Thomas Aquinas Church was built in the 1870’s by the same rough Irish coal miners who built the town of Archbald. They fashioned it as one great open vault, without interior supports, in neo-Romanesque style. Then they hired three Italian painters to cover the interior. The first was Filippo Costaggini (1837-1907), a painter of some note, whose most famous work in this country is his fresco on the frieze of the Capitol rotunda in Washington. His Crucifixion in the apse is the finest such that I have seen in America. When the church was damaged by a fire at the turn of the century, the elderly Costaggini sent one of his proteges to repair the work.
He and the other Italians covered the church with color and significance. They graced the vertical spaces between the windows with figures from the Old Testament, prophets and priests, judges and kings. They surmounted each window with a medallion featuring one of the apostles. They filled the ceiling, too; Mary, giving the rosary to Saint Dominic, with Catherine of Siena and Thomas Aquinas looking on in adoration; Mary, standing upon a blue globe, the serpent crushed beneath her feet, with Pope Pius IX, who declared the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, kneeling in prayer; the four great fathers of the western church, Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome, and Pope Gregory the Great; Saint Cecilia playing upon a spinet, near the choir gallery; the boy Jesus walking along a road with Mary and Joseph; Jesus as the Good Samaritan, lifting a battered man from the earth, no other help in sight; the Annunciation; and more, still more.
That was the ceiling that fell in.
And several years later, that’s the ceiling that has been restored, exactly as it had been. An insurance policy covered much of the cost. The diocese and the congregation handled the rest.
Why do I say it was the best thing that could have happened? Because it gave the pastor a chance to restore more than just the ceiling.
What the Irish miners built from the sweat of their coal-scarred hands, their heedless descendants in the 1970’s, the decade that taste forgot, did their best to destroy. The great main altar, sculpted from Carrara marble—the finest marble in the world, its rich white like vanilla ice cream—is now a stratum of shards and pebbles in some landfill. The marble communion rail, inset with Eucharistic mosaics (a bunch of grapes, loaves of bread, the Lamb of God, two fishes) was pried out and stashed no one knows where. Two large round paintings of Saint Peter and Saint Paul were taken down, leaving the church with but ten apostles. No one knows what became of them. Clouds over which angels hovered, above the sanctuary and in full view of the congregation, were painted blank white, obliterating all shades and detail, and the sky behind was painted blank baby blue, turning the work into a pastiche of sacred art and Saturday morning cartoon.
The Italian painters had softened and embellished the spare architecture of the open vault. They separated their paintings with “architecture,” bands of muted color, giving the impression of an interconnected whole. The eye could descend from the paintings in the center of the ceiling, to the paintings near the bend of the vault, to the paintings above the windows, to the windows and the painted niches between them, to the sculpted polychrome Stations of the Cross below the windows. That sensible tracery did not survive the 1970’s. It was eliminated, in favor of a cold blank white. Nor did the tile floor, inlaid with cruciform patterns, survive. It was covered over with a red carpet, which quickly grew stained and bald and grimy.
So the pastor now had the chance to restore or replace, at great expense, what had been removed or destroyed, at great expense. The result is magnificent. “It is easy to pray in Saint Thomas,” wrote one of our more than fifty native sons to enter the priesthood, before the demolition in the 1970’s. It was easy to pray there, and it is easy once again, because the church is now filled with signs and wonders.
You cannot turn anywhere, without seeing the Word of God, and hearing it in your mind’s ear. “Go to Joseph,” reads the painted scroll above the niche in the sanctuary where the statue of Joseph the Laborer stands. “Slain in Sacrifice,” reads the inscription surrounding the Lamb of Revelation, directly above the altar. “What doth it profit a man should he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” read the words pieced out in a stained glass window of Saint Ignatius, begging Saint Francis Xavier to join him.
I visited that boyhood church of mine the other day. It was quiet and peaceful. It was also full. I wasn’t the only person there. Jesus was there; I knew that from the red candle beside the tabernacle, at the (new) great altar in the sanctuary. But other people were there, too. I sensed their presence, as I could never have done inside a scoured-bare minimalist building functioning as a church. The Irish miners were there. Costaggini and his students were there. All the priests who added and never subtracted were there. Father McGinley, whom I do not remember, but who married my mother and father and baptized me, was there.
One thing that Father McGinley did attracted my attention most of all. He chose new stained glass windows for the nave. They were made in Scranton, about sixty years ago, just before the fad for primitivism and big clunky polygons—a fad that persists, like malaria, in our missals and in the banners that turn churches into kindergartens. He was Dr. Francis McGinley, an educated man, and he knew what he was about. He wanted windows for an Irish and now also immigrant Italian and Polish Catholic Church, in the United States of America, at precisely that time in history. He wanted windows to define who we were, as against the madness of the world. Here is what he chose.
Christ gives the keys of the kingdom to Peter. An image of Saint Peter’s appears in the background. The triple tiara of the Pope appears in an inset above. Below is a solid cube, the stone which the builders rejected, the rock on whom Christ builds his church; it is marked on one face with I H S, on another with X P, the Greek capitals abbreviating the name Iesous Christos.
The Virgin Mary appears to the three children at Fatima. The inset below features a hammer and a sickle. The inset above features a Russian cross. We were going to pray a rosary every first Friday of the month for the conversion of Russia, from the evil of godless communism.
Saint Patrick, with a bishop’s mitre and crozier, preaches to the pagan Irish, illustrating the Trinity by the analogy of the shamrock.
Jesus at Cana instructs the waiters to fill the earthenware jars with water. Whatever the world might say about marriage, we knew it was holy. The inset below features two golden rings, interlocked; what God has joined together, not even Moses, not even an American judge nodding at his bench, should put asunder.
Saint Ignatius wins Saint Francis Xavier to his cause. The inset below shows the dying Francis upon a seashore, holding a cross before him. We knew we were sent to bring Christ to a pagan world.
Pope Pius XII canonizes the girl Saint Maria Goretti, who holds in her arms the white lilies of virginity. Across the aisles, Pope Saint Pius X gives Holy Communion to a kneeling boy and girl. Next to that window, Jesus preaches to the Samaritan woman at the well. Do we understand the profound goodness of childhood, and what that has to do with purity? Maybe we will if we look to the next window, where Saint Anne is teaching the girl Mary, who kneels by her side, a distaff in the background, and an open book in the mother’s lap.
If we don’t yet understand, we look to the next window, where a standing Thomas More speaks to a seated fellow who is clearly in ill humor. “Ever the king’s good servant,” reads the inset, “but God’s first.” No surprise that an Irish priest named McGinley should favor the saint who spoke the unwelcome truth to a British king. But the messages are clear. We do not worship a State or a statesman. Marriage is holy, ordained by God.
Then comes Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, both mother and consecrated nun, holding a book and a lighted lamp, with an inset below of the school she built. We knew we were to educate our children, regardless of what the State might do. Then the scholar Saint Thomas Aquinas himself, the portly dark-skinned Italian, with two books on a table: the Summa Theologiae, resting upon the Holy Bible.
That was Saint Thomas Aquinas Church, in the world, for the world, against the world, but not of the world. And that was but one church, in a no-account little town in Pennsylvania. The people who built that church were poorer than we are in material goods, by far, and, if what they built with their hands is any testimony, they were richer than we are in spiritual goods and surer in spiritual direction, by far. For the sake of these poor, our eyes shut fast with fatness, it is high time, pastors, principals, composers, musicians, teachers, and writers, that some more ceilings came down.