Holy Family Church – Chicago’s Second Oldest – to Celebrate its 150th Anniversary Sunday December 30, 2007,
with “Feast of the Holy Family” Liturgy Presided by Cardinal George, Dedication of New Pastoral Center,
Day-Long Open House, Pre-Chicago Fire Souvenirs
CHICAGO- December 18, 2007—When Holy Family Church’s recently donated Rice Frobenius organ pumps out the familiar strains of “ Hark the Herald Angels Sing” during this Christmas season, parishioner Dieter Meister will have a special reason to celebrate.
The 69-year-old retired Lombard, Illinois painter decorator volunteered more than 1,500 man hours in recent years to restore Holy Family’s rare collection of 24 wooden angels hand-carved in 1870 in Montréal. The whimsical figures each play a different musical instrument-- trumpet, clarinet, french horn, flute, violin, harp, tambourine, cymbal, even a banjo. Each angel wears distinctive clothing and all have unique poses and facial expressions.
And, the master craftsman is happy to have 2007 behind him for during this year, the normally robust and healthy Meister successfully survived prostate cancer, an unexpected heart attack and triple bypass coronary surgery.
Meister Used Old World Restoration Techniques on Historic Chicago Church
Asked why he undertook such a massive assignment, Meister, a gifted craftsman trained in Old World techniques says, “if you don’t respect your history, you’ll have no future.”
“Where I come from, old means that a church that was built in the year 900,” the Oberhausen, Germany native says. These special hidden treasures can now be enjoyed by everyone during Holy Family’s 150th anniversary, he added.
Holy Family’s angels represent the largest collection of Montréal word carver Charles Olivier-Dauphin’s work in the world.
Dauphin (1807- 1874) had a workshop in Montréal’s St. Denis Street for more than 25 years. He was commissioned in 1870 to create an orchestra of angels to sit high atop Holy Family’s massive hand carved organ case, also from Montréal. Dauphin is recognized as a member of the Montreal school of Québec’s peasant sculptors. During a 40-year career he created pieces for private homes and churches in Québec and Manitoba provinces and in the northern United States.
The Holy Family angel collection is believed by Canadian art historians to be the largest collection of his work, much of which has been lost in church fires or by demolition.
“We’re so very grateful that Dieter Meister, truly a gifted craftsman, would see the restoration of Holy Family’s angels in time for the parish’s 150th anniversary this year as one of his life’s legacies. We are truly blessed,” said Rev. Jeremiah J. Boland, parish administrator.
For someone to spend as much time as Dieter did in this massive restoration project is almost unthinkable, Father Boland said.
Meister spent much of World War II with his mother, two brothers and a sister in the countryside well away from his city in the Ruhr Valley which was a nightly bombing target. His father, a German soldier, was killed in action in Russia in 1944.
Diversified Career Prepared Meister For Restoration Work
After the War, Meister apprenticed as a painter but soon shifted to working in coal mines in nearby Essen where wages were higher. He immigrated to the U.S. in 1959 and worked as a construction laborer for several years.
Meister parlayed his apprenticeship training in Germany into a position as a painter for a Chicago North Shore painting and decorating firm for 15 years. Then, he and his wife, Hedvig, a native of Denmark, moved to their farm in Verndale, Minnesota where they raised horses and cattle along with their three children, Anne, Christine and Carl.
“In the 1980s, we returned to Chicago and I spent 17 wonderful years with the National Decorating Company, Oak Brook, Illinois as a painter-decorator working all over the Midwest on scores of residential, commercial and church jobs,” he says.
Meister is a specialist at church restoration. Beginning in 1991, he spent over a decade in Holy Family, Chicago’s second oldest church, built in 1857, helping to restore it to its 1890 high Victorian style of intricate decoration.
Meister Took Painstaking Care in Restoring Chicago’s Second Oldest Church
“First, we stripped this giant church down to the original plaster and made much needed repairs.
“Then, we applied two coats of primer, two finish coats and colorful decoration to the entire church-- ceiling, walls and massive pillars. Meister worked with Holy Family’s restoration architect, John Vinci and a color consultant who examined core borings and translated a late 19th century black and white photograph of the church interior into a contemporary color scale. Meister and his crew uncovered and then recreated the distinctive fluer de lis stencil pattern that appears on virtually every vertical surface of the cathedral size church.
Holy Family Church, Chicago’s first Jesuit parish, was founded by Rev. Arnold Damen, S.J., on what was then the outskirts of the city. It was called, “a European cathedral on the Illinois prairie.” It once served the largest English-speaking congregation in the United States—20,000 persons. Holy Family’s boundaries stretched more than eight miles, from the Chicago River on the east to the city limits on the west.
Holy Family is one of five public buildings to have survived the Chicago Fire of 1871 and is the city’s only example of pre-Civil War Victorian church architecture. It boasts of the oldest stained glass in Chicago, dating to 1860.
Restoring the Holy Family angel collection was a true labor of love that required both talent and patience. “There were no shortcuts, there’s only one way to do this job for the ages and that’s the right way,” Meister says.
“First, I stripped each piece down to bare wood using a commercial grade chemical stripper to remove multiple layers of paint and other coatings that had been applied over the years. A little sand paper and dexterous use of dental tools helped to gently remove old coatings from the crevices and folds of the ancient figures.
“Next, I used a trisodium wash followed by a base coat of shellac to seal the grain. Then, each piece was sand papered to prepare it for gilding,” he explains.
Almost all of Holy Family Dauphin angels had to be repaired.
“These beautiful pieces of art showed more than 13 decades of neglect,” Meister says.
He searched the upper balconies of the church and found fragments of angels broken when angels tumbled from their high perches—“a hand here, a finger there. Many of the instruments were damaged, so I reassembled the figures and their instruments to their original state as best as I could.”
Meister had to be creative to solve some restoration problems. One angel clearly was holding a missing musical instrument that he judged to be a triangle. “So, I purchased a modern metal triangle and added it to the collection,” he says. For another piece he replaced harp strings made of wooden dowels with steel rods the same size so they would remain stable.
“On the chance that someday these pieces would be restored to museum level condition, I planned all my work so it could be reversed. I used latex materials that dissolve in alcohol to spare a future conservator the pain that I went through,” Meister explains.
Finally, after 40 to 60 hours and hours of preparatory work on each of the 24 angels, Meister spent another two days applying a seize coat and then gilding 4 x 4 inch sheets of 23-caret gold leaf onto each angel.
“I was happy to contribute my labor, but Holy Family had to find a real ‘angel’ to finance the gold leaf, so the church’s budget was never tapped,” he says.
After completing the first angel, Meister says “there was no turning back.”
“I saw that angel and was so enchanted by it. Then, it just became a labor of love,” he said.
In addition, the Dauphin collection includes five other larger, almost life-size biblical figures that Meister also undertook, expending even more hours.
“We have King David of Israel and his harp, a 600 llb. piece that remains in its original post in the upper balcony, the prophetess Deborah, St. Cecilia, patron saint of music and two large reclining allegorical figures holding musical scores. It was one tough big job.”
In his retirement, Meister enjoys an annual wild game hunting trip to Minnesota and Montana and spends time with his family. His daughter, Anne, followed her father’s career and herself is a painter-decorator for National Decorating Company. Daughter Christine is a communications manager for a loop firm and son, Carl, is a master sergeant with the U.S. Army at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds after serving in Iraq—his 19th year of military service.
Does Meister believe in guardian angels?
“I’d better, ever since the day I was working on a scaffold in Holy Family and felt a trickle of light dust on my back. Remembering my days in the coal mines, I moved quickly to my left just as several hundred pounds of plaster broke from the upper reaches of the church and landed where I had stood but a moment ago. I think you could say that one of my own angels was in the church that day,” Meister says.
The restored Dauphin angels will be displayed on the main altar of Holy Family Church, 1080 West Roosevelt Road, Chicago all during the Christmas season before their return early next year to the upper reaches of the second balcony when scaffolding can be erected.
“We wanted to give all Chicago this wonderful holiday experience for one last time before these magnificent pieces are placed four stories above Holy Family’s nave,” said Father Boland.
“This beautiful French-Canadian collection is a splendid addition to the art and statuary which is so representative of the eclectic community that is Holy Family,” said Father Boland. The parish’s early congregations were comprised of Irish immigrants, followed by German and Italian immigrants and later African-American and Latino people. Today, with the rebirth of the near west side of the city, Holy Family’s face reflects the community and the congregation includes everyone—whites, blacks, Latinos and Asians,” he said.
The Dauphin angels will be on display on Holy Family’s main altar where the public may view them up close at the following Christmas season events:
Christmas Eve, Monday, December 24
5:00 p.m. Mass with music featuring historic Rice Frobenius pipe organ.
9:30 p.m. Christmas Carols featuring the Holy Family Gospel Choir.
10 p.m. Solemn liturgy (Mass) of the Vigil of Christmas
Tuesday, December 25
9:45 a.m. Celebration of Nativity of Our Lord Mass
Sunday, December 30
9:45 a.m. Feast of the Holy Family Mass, Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I., presiding
11:00 a.m.- 4:00 p.m. Open House, Church Tours, Music
For more information:
Holy Family Parish
1080 West Roosevelt Road, Chicago, Illinois 60607
(312) 492- 8442
# # #