19th-century painting of Virgin Mary returns to Johnstown

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When the Benedictine Sisters of Pittsburgh offered to return a 10-by-3-foot painting of the Virgin Mary that had survived the Johnstown Flood of 1889, members of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association were intrigued.

The painting had been commissioned by Private Joseph Stibich, a Civil War veteran who had promised the Virgin Mary that if he survived the war, he would commission a painting of her. The painting was given to the nuns by Sister Benedicta Stibich, the veteran's daughter, when she joined their community sometime in the late 1800s.

For more than a century, the large painting of Jesus' mother surrounded by angels had hung in the nuns' former convent in Ross. The Benedictine sisters decided to send it home to Johnstown after moving to a smaller building in Richland.

They believed that it had originally hung in St. John Gualbert Cathedral, but heritage association members thought that was highly improbable. The flood that killed more than 2,000 people and left Johnstown in ruins hit St. Gualbert very hard, and the church was destroyed in a resulting fire.

"It looked like a bomb had destroyed it after the flood," said Shelley Johansson, the association's director of communications. "There was no way an object of that size could have survived, we thought, particularly something like a painting, which is inherently flammable."

The association put the nuns in touch with 1901 Church, an organization that oversees three historic former church buildings in Johnstown's Cambria City neighborhood. It agreed to accept the painting, and members of the heritage association, who were captivated by the mystery surrounding it, set out to investigate its origins.

Because the Benedictine Sisters have a German connection, they began looking into pre-1889 Johnstown Catholic churches of German origin. After narrowing it down to St. Mary's Immaculate Conception and St. Joseph, they rooted through old interior shots of both to see if they could find the painting. That was a dead end.

Then, just as the investigators were ready to give up, the association's curator stumbled upon an album filled with old magic lantern slides (from an early type of image projector) depicting the aftermath of the flood. One image in particular stood out.

"It was a picture of [St. Mary's Immaculate Conception] after the flood. The church had sustained significant damage but the structure still stood, and you could make out the painting, recognizably the painting, behind the altar," Ms. Johansson said.

Later, association members were able to verify the story of the veteran commissioning the painting.

"What we don't understand -- and probably never will -- is exactly why the church gave it away," Ms. Johansson said. "It seems as though if you went through this terrible event and many people died, that you would say that something that has survived would become kind of a cherished artifact through the ages."

In the past few years, the Benedictine Sisters have given away many pieces of art due to a lack of resources for preserving them.

"To maintain good art, you need the right kind of conditions," Sister Evelyn Dettling said. "While it was very hard to give this painting up and donate it to the Johnstown Heritage Association, we felt that they would be able to do the necessary restorations, and that it would be hung in an atmosphere that would be more conducive to keeping the painting in good condition."

The painting was recently hung in the Grand Halle on Broad Street, a reception center created within the former Immaculate Conception, which was rebuilt in 1908 on the site of St. Mary's Immaculate Conception Church, the painting's original location.

"The painting wound up exactly where it should have," Ms. Johansson said.

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Kitoko Chargois: kchargois@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1088.


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