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Famous Crucifixion painting is recovered
and restored to its place above the altar

Christopher Gaul
Catholic Review

Oct 12, 2001.  A priceless sentimental treasure of Mount St. Maryís College and Seminary in Emmitsburg has been restored to a place of pious honor above the seminary chapelís altar after gathering dust in the archives for nearly a century.

The recovery involves a story that spans almost two centuries and an old painting under which the Mountís founder, Bishop John DuBois, celebrated Mass and whose profoundly touching scene must often have held the saintly gaze of his neighbor and friend, Elizabeth Ann Seton.

How the striking 18th century oil painting of the crucifixion languished for so long and how it was discovered involved luck, intuition and some quick-thinking historical detective work on the part of an associate professor of history at the college.

"Something clicked when I saw it," said Father Albert H. Ledoux, the faculty member who is a 1987 graduate of the seminary.

Itís a cryptic observation that requires some explanation. Father Ledoux referred specifically to the superb 18th century copy of the famous 17th century Flemish artist, Franz Francken the Youngerís depiction of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Mary Magdalene and St. John standing in sorrow at the feet of the crucified Christ.

"OK, letís start at the beginning," Father Ledoux advised. And this is his story; this is the mystery he solved.

It was 1991, and the seminary had undergone a thorough interior renovation. The building had been practically gutted, what with the installation of new heating and electrical systems, among other things. But when it was all done, many of the walls, especially those in the large classrooms, appeared even barer than they had before. So, Monsignor Kenneth Roeltgen, then the seminary rector, dispatched a staff member to the collegeís archives to find "things to hang." One of the "things" turned out to be the crucifixion painting, darkened by the ravages of time, but its poignant scene still discernable.

It was just the thing for the lecture hall.

It remained there, little noticed, until 1995 when Monsignor Roeltgen decided the crucifix above the altar of St. Bernardís, the seminary chapel, needing restoring. He wanted something to fill the blank space during its absence, and he remembered the crucifixion painting in the lecture hall. And so it was done.

Enter Father Ledoux. He was spending the summer at the Mount while working on his doctoral dissertation at The Catholic University of America. Entering the chapel for Mass one morning he took a close look at the painting above the altar. And that, he said, is when "something clicked."

As a church history-buff student at the seminary, Father Ledoux had spent many hours in the college archives, sifting through letters and other old documents. Now was his chance to take on yet another role, that of G.K. Chestertonís famous fictional priest detective, Father Brown. Could this painting, thought Father Ledoux, be the one that might have hung over the altar of the old Mountain Church built then by Father DuBois in 1806, the church used by Mount students until 1897 and which burned down July 4, 1913, the victim of an errant Roman candle firework?

The priest returned to the familiar archives and after a search of several hours uncovered a letter he thought he might have glanced at during his student days. It was from Bishop DuBois, dated 1835, in which the Mount founder reported that he had received the "crucifixion scene in the Mountain Church" as payment for a debt.

Father Ledouxís continuing investigation in the archives revealed that a Mathias OíConway of Philadelphia had presented the painting to Bishop DuBois as a payment-in-kind for $244 in outstanding fees for his son, Columbkill OíConway, who was a student at the Mount from 1809 to 1812.

Since Bishop DuBois testified to having received the painting, and there was no mention in the college records of the OíConway debt after 1814, Father Brown, that is to say, Father Ledoux surmised that the seminary must have been given the painting around that date or at least before Bishop DuBois left the Mount for New York in 1826.

But was this really the same crucifixion painting? And had it, in fact, hung above the altar of the Mountain Church, which is now the site of the sky-soaring Pangborn Campanile, the 80-foot bell tower surmounted by a 25-foot tall golden statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary?

Yet another search through the archives uncovered some photographs taken in the late 1880s and early 1890s that revealed a painting of the crucifixion above the old Mountain Churchís high altar.

"The photos were old, but you could clearly see Christ and Mary Magdalene, and there was no doubt in my mind it was one and the same painting." said Father Ledoux.

"Itís a such great story, isnít it?" said Father Kevin Rhoades, the seminaryís present rector, who had the painting professionally cleaned before restoring it in August to its more appropriate place above the chapelís altar.

Like Bishop DuBois, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and her Sisters of Charity and all the Mountís priests for almost the first century of the 192-year-old seminaryís existence, the seminarians can now draw prayerful inspiration from an old painting. Itís not even an original. Itís a copy. Itís not even worth a lot of money. But itís precious beyond words and something the seminary is not likely to lose or neglect ever again.

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