Stations of the Cross Restored at Conception Abbey

Abbot Benedict Neenan, O.S.B., blesses the restored Stations in a solemn ceremony at Conception Abbey’s Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on Friday, February 16, 2018. Photo courtesy of Conception Abbey. (Photo courtesy of Conception Abbey)

By Br. Michael Marcotte, O.S.B.

December 11, 2017 marked a special anniversary for the monks of Conception Abbey. Exactly 125 years ago Abbot Frowin Conrad, O.S.B. installed a new set of the Stations of the Cross in the abbey church, then less than a year and a half old. Abbot Frowin made the following entry in his diary:

Dec. 11, 1892. Gaudete Sunday—Today after Vespers, in the presence of the Rt. Rev. Abbot Innocent [Wolf] of Atchison, I blessed with great ceremony the new stations which are a very beautiful imitation of the Beuronese stations in Stuttgart. The faithful took part in great numbers. May they help a great deal to awaken and foster devotion to the painful sufferings of our Lord. – Abbot Frowin Conrad, O.S.B.

Three facts can be gleaned from this brief journal entry: 1) that these images were based on the stations painted by the monks of Beuron in Stuttgart, Germany, 2) that these paintings were installed by December of 1892 (which means they were the first pieces of Beuronese art in the new church), and 3) that Abbot Frowin viewed the stations as important in his spiritual vision for the community.

How were these Stations acquired? Unfortunately, only part of the answer to that question is known.

In the early years of the foundation of Conception Abbey, Abbot Frowin Conrad stayed in close contact with Archabbot Placidus Wolter of the Abbey of Beuron in Germany. Abbot Frowin was captivated by the ideals of this new community and incorporated many of its customs and liturgical practices into the life of the monastery at Conception.

Beuron established an Art School in the late 1800’s which began to produce a new style of liturgical art drawn from principles of Egyptian, Greek and Byzantine painting and intended to be a visual counterpart to Gregorian chant. In 1888, the monks of Beuron were asked to paint the stations of the cross for the Marienkirche in Stuttgart, Germany. In a letter to Abbot Frowin dated the 29th of January 1891, Archabbot Placidus mentioned a new book that was to be published by Paul Wilhelm Keppler on the Stations of the Cross that the monks of Beuron produced for the Marienkirche. This book contained large photos of the stations as well as a commentary and detailed description of each station.

Abbot Frowin obtained a copy of this book (now in the abbey’s archives) and commissioned a painter to make copies of the Stuttgart stations. Correspondence with the painter is lacking; however, his name is known.

On the twelfth station, the depiction of the Crucifixion, there is a signature of the artist: E. Traub. Unfortunately, it has not been possible to identify this painter. Traub may have been an artist in Stuttgart copying from the original stations in the Marienkirche or from colored sketches in the art studio at Beuron, or he may have been a painter in the United States working from the black and white images in Keppler’s book. It is known that the frames were constructed locally.

The original images at Stuttgart were horizontal. Conception Abbey’s stations were cropped from the original scenes into a vertical format. That entailed the omission of some figures from the original paintings. A comparison of the Conception paintings and the photos of the Marienkirche models shows that the artist copied the images quite faithfully.

Keppler’s description of the coloration was also carefully observed. These were the very first pieces of Beuronese art to be installed in the Abbey church.

Work on the murals was not begun until 1893, necessitated by the need to repair damage from a tornado which struck the church on the 21st of June of that same year.

The Stations were removed from the Basilica during the renewal of the building in 1995 and placed in storage. Following historical research on the Stations by Archbishop Jerome Hanus, O.S.B., and the awareness that the Stations were clearly of Beuronese origin, Abbot Benedict Neenan, O.S.B., appointed a committee to undertake the project of restoration: Fr. Pachomius Meade, O.S.B., Br. Placid Dale, O.S.B., Mark Wiederholt, Br. William Woeger, F.S.C. of Omaha, Nebraska, consultant, and Br. Michael Marcotte, O.S.B., chair.

In June of 2017, the paintings were taken to Brooklyn, New York to undergo refurbishment by Gillian Randell, the same conservator who restored the murals in the Basilica in 1998-1999. The frames were restored at the Abbey. A nearby craftsman generously donated his labor to remove the black lacquer from the frames, revealing a beautiful walnut wood beneath the varnish. Melissa Chesnut meticulously repainted the borders as well as the titles. The painting scheme was designed to match the stained glass windows with a wide outer band of “basilica blue” and a thin inner frame of red. The titles were changed from Gothic script to the Beuronese style of lettering used throughout the rest of the church. Br. Placid Dale, O.S.B. framed the paintings and installed them in the Basilica.

Abbot Benedict blessed the restored stations in a solemn ceremony on Friday, February 16, 2018, attended by the monks and seminarians as well as many friends and guests. The service was followed by the celebration of the Stations of the Cross using reflections by Blessed John Henry Newman.

Inspired by Abbot Frowin’s vision for this community, may the display and use of these Stations “awaken and foster devotion” and an increase in faith in the lives of the monks, seminarians, guests and all pilgrims who visit Conception Abbey.

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April 24, 2018
Newspaper of the Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph