Imhoff Portraits come to St. Paul Co-Cathedral: “It is as if they have always been there”

A composite image, showing the Count von Imhoff paintings of St. Peter (left) and St. Paul, and an image of their new home at St. Paul Co-Cathedral in Saskatoon. (Photo submitted by Fr. Stefano Penna)

By Fr. Stefano Penna, Rector and Pastor, St. Paul Co-Cathedral, Saskatoon

[Catholic Saskatoon News] – The Bishop’s Annual Appeal video this year invited us to build upon the faith legacy of our fore-bearers. It is indeed a rich one here in Saskatchewan – including the remarkably productive career of the artist Count Berthold von Imhoff.

Over 200 beautifully painted, life-size images of the Saviour, Virgin Mary, and heroes of our Catholic faith grace churches across Saskatchewan including the remarkable works in St. Peter’s Cathedral in Muenster and the churches in Reward, Paradise Hill, Marysburg, and Prince Albert.

From his  studio in St. Walburg, SK, Count Imhoff responded to commissions from many parishes in Pennsylvania, North Dakota … and Blaine Lake Saskatchewan!

My dear cousins, Ed and Carol Thorsteinson – long-time parishioners of St. Andrew’s Parish in Blaine Lake – informed me that sadly their church built in 1911 was to be decommissioned and sold. Among the patrimony of this parish were two large paintings of Sts. Peter and Paul – the work of Imhoff in 1916, early upon his move to St. Walburg. Would the Co-Cathedral in Saskatoon be interested in such, my cousins wondered? Would we!

With the blessing  of Bishop Mark Hagemoen, I immediately contacted Bishop Albert Thévenot of Prince Albert who has responsibility for the sacred patrimony of his diocese. I asked that St. Paul’s be allowed to host these wonderful works permanently. Bishop Thévenot graciously made this possible – with the proviso that a suitable acknowledgment of St. Andrew’s parish be prepared as a plaque.

Ray Marchildon, St. Paul Co-Cathedral building manager, and I travelled to Blaine Lake in a rented van that providentially allowed the paintings to fit perfectly. Despite their age, these two works of art (on 9’x4’ canvases stapled to the sanctuary walls) were in excellent condition. We laid them out in Bishop Mahoney Hall at St. Paul Co-Cathedral so that our parishioners could examine them and reflect upon how this artwork could be incorporated into our beautiful worship space.

It was almost unanimously agreed that the sanctuary was the best place for Imhoff’s saints. So off to work we went to prepare the canvases and the walls (which had never had any adornment other than banners over all their many years). By “we” I mean Ray Marchildon and Michael Raney (who was received this Easter into full communion) who (supported financially by two anonymous donors from the parish), prepared, framed, and affixed St. Peter and Paul in their places.

The unveiling of these paintings took place as only right on the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, June 29, 2019 in the presence of a full co-cathedral. Though Bishop Mark was unable to attend the unveiling – he will formally bless the plaque and finished frames on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul  – we were thrilled that a cohort of parishioners from St. Andrew’s in Blaine Lake were able to join us. Bitter-sweet as it was, these women and men of faith rejoiced that with their new home these works of faith-filled devotion that had inspired them and generations before would now raise the minds and hearts of new generations.

“Those wall have been waiting for Peter and Paul,” commented one of the St. Andrew’s coterie. They were moved by the welcome and applause of the co-cathedral congregation and particularly touched when it was explained that the moulding in the corners would include the Cross of St. Andrew.

As I reflect on the propensity of recent church design and renovations a certain sadness arises. “Noble simplicity” often ended up being pedestrian and boring. The result is churches that are not very kid-friendly, that is, there are few beautiful images whose polychrome form can intrigue and provoke the imagination of children of every age during monochromatic homilies. St. Paul’s Co-Cathedral has been able to retain much of this beauty and colour through devastating fires and renovations. It is a patrimony of the faith of our fore-bearers, the faith founded on St. Peter’s confession and St. Paul’s preaching. Indeed, beautiful art and architecture for us is only important as it serves to proclaim, “Jesus, you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”!

A recent item from the St. Paul Cathedral Bulletin:

MOVE FROM MAINTENANCE TO MISSION”- So Bishop Hagemoen has identified one of the goals of our three-year Diocesan Pastoral Plan “To Proclaim Christ and God’s Kingdom Today.” St. Paul’s Co-Cathedral has understood this all through its long mission to be the spiritual heart of Saskatoon City. We have a beautiful treasure in this storied cathedral building and generations have contributed millions of dollars and work hours to its structural maintenance. Thanks to them we can sing, “How lovely is your dwelling place Lord God of Hosts” (Ps. 84:1). Yet the recent gifts of tabernacle veils reminds us just what is the deep truth of this building – it is the house of a “tent” – for that is what tabernaculum means. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (and Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel) dwelled in the midst of wanderers and exiles in a tent. God is God-on-the-Move. This is the way of God – pitching His Tent among us wherever we are – moving with us, moving in us, in the Resurrected Son – Jesus Christ – whose Holy Spirit still blows through the flaps of the Holy Tabernacle. He moves into the world through us who leave this House of the Tabernacle seeing ourselves as “lovely dwelling places” in which Jesus lives wherever we pitch our tents.

It was as if Imhoff captured this idea in these images of the Apostles – for they both look at and gesture towards the crucifix and the altar where their Lord meets His Church. A few weeks after the installation a parishioner said to me, “Father, there is something different about the cathedral.” I asked if he meant the new portraits. He paused, smiled, and said, “Hah. I guess so. I should have noticed. It is as if they have always been there.”

That is true, Peter, Rock of the Church, Paul, Patron of our diocese have always been here.