HAGUE, N.D. — The devil might be in the details, but in the Hague church, God is in the artwork. And artwork is everywhere.
St. Mary’s Catholic Church has always been among North Dakota’s most lovely churches with its soaring nave above a center aisle. Arching buttresses are beautifully stenciled and draw the eye upward where brilliant murals on the high ceiling tell the story of Mary, mother of Jesus.
It is as compelling to look upward as it is to look forward, where the high altar is flanked by famous Chicago-made Daprato statuary — winged angels, the Holy Family, timeless and gorgeous.
To this add Brian Henning, whose Italian great-grandfather was a skilled stone cutter and who is the fourth generation of what is now Henning Church and Historical Restoration, based in St. Paul, Minn.
Henning arrived at the church in July, prepared to do a relatively small job of repairing some water damage in the ceiling.
The project grew wings, as projects do when someone shows up with the right skills, tools in hand.
It wasn’t long and Henning’s scaffolding was scaled high enough to repaint the interior of the church in muted cream and tans. While he was up there, he cleaned and touched up murals and decorative stencils before painting in the new stenciling that his artists created to surround the stained glass windows.
Weeks turned into months, summer into fall, and it is only now that he is packing up his paints and brushes, his stencils and scaffolding and moving on to another Catholic church, this one in Lefor.
He will leave behind beauty that survives the generations.
“I’m pretty proud of it. It looks like what people have said it looked like when it was originally built,” Henning said. It dates to 1929, when the parish rebuilt after a fire.
As he painted and restored the artwork, his thoughts turned to the children of St. Mary’s.
The murals illustrate stories to which they already know the words, he said.
There are not so many children to dream their way through Sunday Mass.
The Hague church is supported by an ever smaller aging parish and it will spend much more on this lengthy restoration than the small repair work planned.
The Rev. Jason Signalness said the church doesn’t have much money to start and there won’t be much left when the Henning bill is paid.
But money isn’t everything. And, God provides.
“Good church art raises the mind to God. Art leads you to prayer. I can sit for an hour in front of a stained glass window and contemplate the mystery,” Signalness said.
It is no mystery — and a bit more of a miracle — how the statuary, the high altar and all of the gorgeous painting survived the tectonic shift of Vatican II, when Catholic churches moved away from Latin and artistic embellishments.
“There was a real shift to simplify the church and focus more on who we are and the Holy Eucharist. Vatican II never called for stripping art from churches, but those were complicated times,” Signalness said.
He has heard stories of the parishioners trying to run the then-priest out of Hague during those turbulent years for the church.
Sally Schall came to church one recent morning to recite the rosary and attend morning Mass. A dozen people were scattered in pews built to hold 400.
Schall said she is happy with Henning’s work. “It just looks fresh and rich. It looks very rich,” she said.
Schall said she remembers the Vatican II era very well.
“They tore out the pulpit and then some of the church men said, ‘No more.’ The next thing was going to be the communion rail and they said, ‘That’s enough,’” she said.
Henning said his artists created stenciling in blue, gold leaf and muted red to surround the stained glass that had been painted over back in the ’70s. He remembers his grandfather being asked to destroy statuary during those years and said it’s wonderful that some churches held fast.
“Luckily, there were places like this that the parishioners were strong enough to stand up to the priest,” he said. The Stations of the Cross statuary alone in the Hague church would cost $45,000 and is probably irreplaceable, he said.
“I’ve never seen anything like these, with power run into them (for luminaries),” he said.
Henning, 42, said he and his father have together restored nearly 1,000 churches, many of them in North Dakota.
“It’s a pretty hard way to make a living. We’ve been lucky. In the last 10 years, we’ve been working steady, but before that we would do as few as two jobs a year,” he said.
Their work speaks for itself and word spreads among the faithful. The Hennings were working at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Mandan when the former priest at Hague heard of their work and recommended them to the parish.
He’s enjoyed his time there, staying in a parishioner’s “hunter house” and eating with the locals at the community-owned Hague Cafe. He admits he favors hamburgers over the daily German specials.
Each church has its own personality, but to Henning, St. Mary’s is truly special.
“It stands out for the statuary and for the type of church it is, where it is and for the architecture. It has to be in the top five,” Henning said.
“It really is amazing to have this church in the middle of nowhere,” he said.