Preserving the past: Artisans repair interior of National Shrine of the Divine Mercy chapel at Eden Hill

When the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception first kicked off the construction of the chapel at Eden Hill in Stockbridge in 1950, all that was certain at the time was the desire to build the structure and its eventual name. Sixty years later, the restoration process of what was once described as a “monument to the human spirit” has become a little more defined.
For more than two weeks, a trio of artisans have been working to preserve the artistry and craftsmanship of the interior of the chapel at the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy. The repair and maintenance effort has been a careful undertaking by Richard Byrne and Donna Zarbin-Byrne of Dallas-based Artisan Restoration International. Prior to their arrival in Stockbridge, the husband-and-wife duo performed some research on the property. Though not a typical endeavor in their more than 30-year careers as designers and artists, Zarbin-Byrne says that it adds to their approach to cultural care.
Through that research, the couple learned that the project was executed without any architectural or decorative plans. The Marian Fathers bought the Eden Hill Estate in 1943 and established the Immaculate Conception Novitiate. One of their first steps was to convert a room in the existing mansion into a chapel. Though the room sufficed in the beginning, the needs of the growing community and the increasing flow of visitors soon made it too small.
The builder tasked with building the chapel was master furniture maker and wood carver Antonio Guerrieri, and he was 74 at the time. At an age when most people are thinking of or have already retired, Guerrieri was about to embark upon his masterpiece, said Zarbin-Byrne.
“He had been raised and trained in a culture [in Italy] which taught that before a man died, he had to do something great for God,” she read from an article published by Berkshire Magazine on the chapel in 1984.
In Stockbridge, Guerrerri had built his own home on Main Street, and just before completing a protracted design and restoration of both the interior and exterior of St. Joseph’s Church, according to the article.
Since no plans or written accounts exist, the inspirations for Guerrieri’s design are unknown. Guerrieri hand-selected a building team, which included the full-time crew of Stanley Olender of Housatonic, who had previously been an apprentice of Guerrerri; Stanley Socha, a carver from Adams; and masons, Dominic, Edward and Richard Mottarella of Lee.
The interior work included the rest of the wood carving and joinery, the marble altars, the decorative stenciling done by William Twarog of Adams and the murals painted by Joseph Amato of Bridgeport, Connecticut. The stained glass windows were executed by Fred Leuchs, an artist who had maintained a studio in Stockbridge.
After 10 years, the construction of the Divine Mercy Chapel was completed and funded completely from free-will offerings.
Over the course of 60 years, Byrne says that moisture permeated the walls, causing flaking and chipping of paint. During services held over that time, the use of incense has also built up on the stained glass windows as well as the wood.
Together with Bethlehem, Pennsylvania-based artist Tina Cantelmi, Byrne and Zarbin-Byrne have spent the past two weeks refurbishing intricate mosaics, reinstating parts of stained glass that have been damaged, and repainting murals and decorative stencil work throughout the chapel. All Masses and services have continued at the chapel, but have been held on the lower level in Memorial Hall. Because there is no decorative plan, the artisans took their restorative efforts to Lee Hardware True Value to scan the chipped and flaking paint and match colors. While some areas that included a faux finish were a little more forgiving, finding the right color match and mirroring the style was something the artisans took very seriously, said Zarbin-Byrne.
“It’s more than just cleaning stone sculptures and touching up paint,” she said, as she scanned the details of the room as if she could imagine the scene from the original artists. “This kind of work … it makes you feel like what you do matters.
“You could say we’re in the business of ‘preserving culture’.”
Over the past three decades, Zarbin-Byrne and Byrne have developed a reputation for specializing in the preservation and historic conservation of architectural surfaces, sculptures, and furniture in metal, wood and stone. This undertaking is also not the first time they’ve worked on sacred art pieces. Other projects include, “The Ner Tamid”, which translates to “everlasting light”. The Jewish liturgical piece hangs above the ark in a Chicago-area synagogue. The piece was cast in bronze and designed and sculpted by Artisan Restoration International. The business sustains work for religious establishments as well as residential clients throughout the country. Each year, Artisan Restoration International returns to Hawaii every year to perform maintenance needs for on a sign for the Town of Wailea in Maui. The bronze text and logo was created for the town and returns to the state to maintain the sculpture, no matter the environmental conditions.
The couple has also worked on projects for the National Shrine of Divine Mercy in the past, including the bronze and wooden indoor stations of the cross as well as repaired and restored the patina on more than 50 life-size outdoor statues depicting the Stations of the Cross.
Over the course of the two weeks, Cantelmi would play Gregorian chants on her phone to encourage further inspiration, she said.
“Part of the task at hand is to honor the craftsmen and volunteers who poured so much time and effort into the construction of the chapel,” said Zarbin-Byrne. “There’s a real sense that the artisans who devoted themselves to their craft would be pleased with the restoration work we are doing.”
The chapel is expected to begin holding services on the main level by the end of the month.

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