Dioramas receive ‘makeover’
They may have taken approximately six weeks to refurbish, but the dioramas that tell the story of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin’s journey and mission at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods are now in excellent shape.
Patricia Griffin, consultant in objects conservation and collections care, was engaged by the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods to handle the project.
“Everyone was very accommodating and hospitable, including the crew from Garmong,” Griffin said.
The dioramas tell the story of Saint Mother Theodore and the Sisters of Providence in 12 steps. In order, they include:
• La Petite Providence in France,
• Prayer of Reunion,
• Farewell to France,
• The Crossing,
• Journey’s End,
• The First Winter,
• The First Academy,
• The First Providence,
• St. Mary’s Female Institute,
• Saint Anne Procession,
• The Fire of 1889, and
• The Church of the Immaculate Conception.
The dioramas were originally planned as a permanent memorial for Saint Mother Theodore Guerin, foundress of the Sisters of Providence. Saint Mother Theodore was canonized in Rome in October 2006, by Pope Benedict XVI.
The 12 dioramas depict persons, places and events of the early history of the Congregation through descriptions by Saint Mother Theodore, which were recorded in her letters, journals and community annals.
The dioramas were completed in 1940 for the centenary of the Congregation’s foundation. Nine years of planning, organization and research went into the project, spearheaded by Sister Ignatia Braheny.
The first diorama was created and donated by Monsieur Henri Marchand, of New York. The remaining 11 dioramas were made by Gregory Kamka, of Chicago.
The dioramas were originally on display in Foley Hall. However, when Foley Hall was demolished, they were moved to Providence Hall before moving into Providence Spirituality and Conference Center.
Griffin said the refurbishing was a daunting process.
“The biggest problem was that the dioramas were in far worse condition than the initial examination in 2012 indicated,” Griffin said. “It’s possible that vibrations from construction caused more damage to fragile materials. The thick layer of dirt and debris obscured a lot of details.
“Probably the biggest issue was the fact that they had been previously restored at some point. These restorations had aged poorly and required structural repairs as well as extensive aesthetic retouching to better integrate them with the original surfaces. The original work appeared far less faded than restored areas because the artist used high-grade paints and pigments.”
Griffin added that she handled the project in “stages.”
“The original condition was documented with photographs,” she said. “Then, all loose material was removed and saved providing that it could be cleaned and reused. Then, the diorama and all components were coarsely vacuumed and dusted several times.
“Entrenched dirt that still remained was removed using erasers and/or chemical solutions applied on cotton swabs. All damaged elements were repaired. Faded paints were retouched to their original hue as estimated by careful observation of deep crevices, in which the colors were better preserved. Cracks in the landscapes and architecture were filled and toned as needed.”
Sister Jan Craven, director of the Shrine of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin and the National Shrine of Our Lady of Providence, said the Congregation is pleased with the refurbishing of the dioramas.
“She did a phenomenal job,” Sister Jan said. “They are exquisite. People are raving about them. We are extremely happy with how they turned out. She made them come alive.”
“The dioramas still serve an active role in the ministry and are much loved,” Griffin added. “I think of them as Saint Mother Theodore’s Saint cycle and they are equivalent to majestic Italian frescoes or Northern altar pieces.”
According to Sister Jan, the dioramas are the third step of the journey of Saint Mother Theodore. The first step is the entrance to Providence Spirituality and Conference Center, followed by the second step – the second circle, which will showcase the current ministries of the Sisters of Providence.
The fourth step will be a timeline, which will be adjacent to the dioramas in the hallway, leading to the Shrine – the fifth and final step.