ALLOUEZ — As 2021 starts, it can be fun to look back at the past — a little farther past than last year.
By doing so, we can find a mystery at the Green Bay Diocese Museum that dates back to at least 1917.
That is when, according to parish journals of St. Francis Xavier Cathedral, two paintings were discovered in the cathedral’s bell towers. (Even though the cathedral itself is older, the bell towers were only completed in 1903.)
According to Sherry Steffel, president of the museum’s board of directors, work was being done in the towers at the time. In a 1923 Green Bay Press Gazette newspaper article with the journals, Msgr. Joseph Marx, then rector of the cathedral, related how a worker, putting in mechanical parts for the organ in 1917, had contacted him about a discovery.
The discovery was two large paintings. They were so dark and dirty that it wasn’t even clear what images they were. The monsignor ordered them taken to the backyard and hosed them off himself.
One turned out to be a painting of St. Anne and Mary as a child. That painting is now in the museum that is located in the basement of the cathedral. The painting is 4 feet by 6 feet and was restored through a grant from the Green Bay and De Pere Antiquarian Society in 2002.
The second painting — which the news article said had a large gold frame — is missing. And it is not entirely clear what the image on it is. Hence, the mystery.
Steffel said Msgr. Marx seemed certain that it was a painting of the Annunciation and that it had originally been housed in the pro-cathedral, which was called St. Mary of the Annunciation. That church was replaced by the new cathedral. Construction was started in 1876.
“I have to believe Msgr. Marx knows what he is talking about,” Steffel said, referring to the priest’s entry in the parish journal. “(So the painting) has to have had an angel — a large angel.” The Annunciation is always painted with an image of the archangel Gabriel, along with the Blessed Mother.
Steffel said that a note in the museum files indicates that the painting — whatever its subject matter — had been loaned to the Allouez Community House, but there is no record of it now with the Village of Allouez, which has since moved to a new community center. Also, since the former community house, later called “the community center,” was built in 1946, it does not match up with the 1917 discovery of the painting.
No one is quite certain what happened to that second painting or if it was an image of the Annunciation — which Steffel admits was a more rare art subject for paintings. More common, she noted, is Mary’s Assumption or even her Immaculate Conception.
“We’ve got a very large painting of the Assumption that has been restored and is hanging in the Cathedral Center,” Steffel said, “across from the painting known as ‘The Hospitality of St. Julian.’” (That St. Julian painting belongs to the cathedral parish.)
However, this particular Assumption painting — which was restored in 2003 by the Antiquarian Society — is mislabeled. Each painting in the museum’s catalog has an identification label, which is on the back, making it hard to access with a large, delicate painting. Steffel says that other local historians believe the painting in the Cathedral Center is really the Immaculate Conception. It is also possible that it is the same painting that hung in the former convent at St. Joseph Academy, now Aldo Leopold School. Steffel is checking for more information from Catherine Lucy, the archivist at the St. Louis, Mo., motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.
Steffel says the painting now in the Cathedral Center came to the museum from Heritage Hill where it had been stored in the basement of the Moravian Church. This is the climate-controlled storage area for Heritage Hill.
This is not unusual because many religious items travel before coming to rest at the museum. This includes the statue of the Sacred Heart that now stands to the left of the cathedral’s church sanctuary. This statue, made of Carrera marble in 1923, came to the museum 10 years ago in less than pristine state because it had been kept outside in Door County. It had lost all of its fingers, except the thumbs. It has been restored and is now inside, which is a better environment for its preservation.
The missing painting’s state and location remains a mystery that Steffel hopes someone can help solve.
“If we don’t track down these mysteries now,” she said, “they will be lost because people will be gone. Time is of the essence.”
Steffel can be reached via the cathedral office at (920) 432-4348.