St. Roch Chapel’s Repairs: Restoring A Spiritual Icon

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By Beth Donze

Once a magnet for Mass-goers and pilgrims from throughout the city and beyond, the 142-year-old Gothic chapel at St. Roch Cemetery No. 1 is undergoing a complete interior overhaul by the New Orleans Catholic Cemeteries Office.

“I have had people come up to me and tell me that when they were growing up, they served Mass in that chapel on weekday mornings before going to school,” said Sherri Peppo, director of the Cemeteries Office.

“Ultimately our goal is to preserve this chapel from 1876, but beyond that, my hope is to start using the chapel again for Masses and other services – to bring back families who went there when they were growing up, and also introduce it to families who may not have visited it before,” Peppo said.

When restorers began removing metal sheathing and water-trapping plaster from St. Roch Chapel’s altar wall, they uncovered arched niches once used to display the faithful’s tokens of gratitude.

The chapel’s sacristy wall awaits fresh mortar and plaster. The hope is that the space will be used once again by priests vesting for Mass.

Walls were retaining water

The most time-consuming portion of the restoration, begun last February, has involved a complete overhaul of the chapel’s interior walls. Over the years, the walls had been covered over with a galvanized aluminum sheathing and were bulging in places.

Upon removal of this metal “wallpaper,” Cemeteries Office staff discovered the culprit: a thick layer of Portland cement, sandwiched between thinner layers of plaster, that had been applied over the walls’ fired-clay brick foundation. Over the years, this impermeable cement had trapped moisture. If left unattended, the ceiling would eventually have caved in, Peppo said.

“Portland cement is a type of masonry plaster that’s not supposed to be used on (top of) old brick because it does not allow the bricks to breathe,” she explained. “When we stripped the walls down to the brick, the bricks were very wet. We had to let them dry for three to four days. They had been holding moisture for years.”

Project leaders identified a more forgiving variety of mortar and plaster – one containing lime –  in consultation with Jimmy Price, a Virginia-based mason and historic restoration expert. Price traveled to New Orleans to teach cemeteries staff about the special mixing and application process.

“Lime mortar allows the brick to breathe when you put it on. It’s not like the Portland cement, which doesn’t allow it to breathe,” Peppo said.

Once plastering is completed, the walls will be painted white with a lime-based paint. The chapel’s vaulted ceiling and three plaster floral ceiling medallions, found to be in relatively good shape, will require only cleaning and repainting.

Joseph Connor, the Cemetery Office’s assistant director of operations, said the color for the ceiling, currently painted a light blue, is still under discussion.

“The ceiling was originally painted white, but sometime during a prior restoration it was painted light blue,” Connor said. “We think it was painted light blue because the chapel was open a lot and the blue color deters bees.”

The chapel’s three plaster ceiling medallions were found to be in relatively good shape. The floral decorations, as well as ribbing in the vaulted ceiling, will be painted bronze. The main ceiling color has yet to be determined. Records who it was originally painted white, but was painted a light blue to deter insects from nesting in the busy chapel.

One of the chapel’s two marble holy water fonts appears to be frozen in time. The fonts will only require a good cleaning.

Peeling back the layers

Stripping the walls back to the bricks also enabled the restoration crew to make more pronounced recesses for the chapel’s 11 arched windows and to install all new electrical. The chapel will be lit both naturally and artificially thanks to recessed lighting in the ceiling and four gas lanterns, the latter of which were original chapel features that are now wired for electricity.

The removal of the walls’ metal sheathing revealed three shallow, arched niches that had been carved into the altar wall. The little alcoves, once used by the faithful to display various objects in thanksgiving for St. Roch’s intercession, will be left empty, Connor said.

‘Jesus’ painting uncovered

But the star of the chapel’s restoration will be the re-installation of its  intricately carved, Gothic-style reredos (the architectural term for an ornamental screen containing religious images behind a church’s altar). Heavily damaged by termites and flooding during Hurricane Katrina, the reredos features flanking cabinets that open and close to display painted canvas scenes from the life of St. Roch.

When workers opened the reredos’ bottom cabinet, the former tabernacle, they made an exciting discovery: a painting of Jesus’ face that had been sealed away for decades because a large statue of St. Roch had blocked access to the tabernacle doors. The painting, which has a large hole in its canvas, is currently being evaluated by conservators to assess its potential for restoration, Peppo said.

The small side room holding offerings of gratitude for answered prayers will be left untouched to show the contrast between renovated and non-renovated spaces.

Statues stored in the chapel’s sacristy await restoration.

“It looked from the tacking that it had been restored or re-stretched before,” Peppo said, adding that once the reredos is fully restored, it will be returned to its original location above the chapel’s marble altar. A cavity at the altar’s base holds a statue of Jesus lying in tomb. Once restored, the statue will be visible once again through a protective plate of Plexiglass.Two small, grotto-like spaces accessible through doorways at flanking sides of the altar are being treated quite differently in the restoration, Connor said. The famous space that displays prostheses and other items offered in gratitude for St. Roch’s healing intercession will be left in its original state; the nook opposite, still awaiting mortaring and re-plastering of its deteriorated brick walls, will be restored to its original function as the tiny sacristy where priests would vest for Mass.

Good Friday ‘sneak preview’

St. Roch Chapel was erected by Father Peter Leonard Thevis, the pastor of German-speaking Holy Trinity Catholic Church from 1868-93, in gratitude for St. Roch’s intercession during the city’s deadly string of yellow fever epidemics. Masses at the chapel began to dwindle with decreasing  parishioner numbers at Holy Trinity, the church’s permanent closure in 2001, and the availability of Masses at nearby Our Lady Star of the Sea Church.

Although the chapel has been closed for safety since September, it was temporarily opened on Good Friday so the more than 300 people attending St. Roch’s annual Way of the Cross could view the ongoing restoration.

The most recent repairs to the chapel were made in 2012, when termite-ridden beams in the attic were replaced with steel beams. Peppo said the current restoration should be finished by late fall 2018.

Donors’ names will be inscribed on a rededication plaque for a minimum donation of $200. The plaque will be placed just inside the entrance. For information, call the Cemeteries Office at 596-3050 or visit www.nolacatholiccem.org.

The chapel’s reredos (a screen depicting religious images above a church’s altar) features paintings from the life of St. Roch. A long-forgotten painting of Jesus’ face was also discovered in its tabernacle and is being evaluated for restoration. The termite-ridden reredos, pictured above, was disassembled in pieces and removed from the chapel for restoration. The base of the chapel’s marble altar houses a statue of Jesus lying in the tomb.

St. Roch Cemetery’s Gothic-style chapel was dedicated in 1876. Those wishing to make a donation to the restoration fund can do so by calling 596-3050 or visiting www.nolacatholiccem.org. A rededication plaque will list the names of donors who give a minimum gift of $200.