Living our Catholic Identity

Stations of the Cross restored to original splendor

By Mount Mary University

Posted on May 11, 2022

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When the Stations of the Cross painted by Mary Leo Hargarten, SSND, first graced Our Lady Chapel in the 1940s, the glow of the brass frames certainly caught the eye of worshippers and drew them to her skillful paintings, inspiring contemplation of Christ’s crucifixion. Her works “have a bright beauty which raised the mind to heaven,” says her 1959 obituary.

Hargarten studied art in Munich, then taught and created art at Mount Mary from 1934 to 1955. Her paintings suggest “they are the result of a close union with God quite as much as of artistic talent and training,” her obituary says. “But it is in her Stations of the Cross that the greatness of her soul is best revealed.”

In recent years, the frames have blackened with tarnish and her paintings seemed to fade from view. But as Our Lady Chapel’s walls recently brightened with fresh paint and touches of gold leaf, its wooden pews and alter step varnished to a rich brown shine, Facilities Manager Lory Bruder decided the chapel’s restoration would not be complete without polishing the Stations’ brass frames to their original splendor.

Last April, Bruder took down and carefully dismantled one Station, loosening screws attaching the frame to a brass plate where Sister Mary Leo had lovingly painted a scene from events that led to Jesus’ crucifixion. Separating the medallion and small wooden cross that crowned the frame, she laid out the pieces and each brass screw, then began rubbing each one with a soft cloth dabbed with brass cleaner. After hours of cleaning between fielding maintenance orders, layers of black and brown dissolved to reveal the brass’s golden tone.

“That’s when she called me and asked if I’d like to see it,” said Vice President for Mission and Identity Joan Penzenstadler, SSND. “‘Look at the difference,’ she said, and it was magnificent!”

Steve Pharr, husband of President Christine Pharr, Ph.D., heard about Bruder’s work on the Stations. “There are 14. Lory and her staff couldn’t spare that much time with all they had to do, so I volunteered to help,” the retired professor said. Pharr picked them up and took them home.

Six volunteers from Mount Mary offered to help him polish. He set up workstations in their garage, sawhorses with planks. The cleaning supplies had been delivered. “We ended up having a cleaning party in August where we got off the first big layer,” Pharr said.

Over the next two weeks, Pharr continued cleaning and polishing, even using tiny plastic brushes to shine every corner and crevice.

The Stations of the Cross inspire prayerful meditation, especially during Lent but also on Fridays throughout the year.

“It is fitting that, as part of our tradition of prayer, they be restored to the dignity they are meant to have,” said Penzenstadler. “The difference is stunning.”