A few years ago I connected with an artist named Matthew Szczepanowski at the Conservation Studio for Art in Philadelphia to restore a family heirloom. Specifically, it was a crucifix that’s been in the family for nearly a century. I liked Matthew immediately, and he did tremendous restoration work. Before/after:
The crucifix was is pretty poor shape after so many years, and was literally coming apart at the seams. I particularly like that the cross itself was returned to its natural wood color, rather than its original black paint.
Matthew is a tall, almost imposing man with a quick smile and a friendly nature. He’s worked on many restoration projects for Catholics in Philadelphia over the years, and religious art is a speciality of his.
The restoration of the Christ figure was most impressive to me, since there was extensive damage to his right arm in particular and chipping and fading in general.
Matthew told me of a pilgrimage he was taking (leaving the next day) across Poland to the Shrine of Our Lady of Częstochowa. I forget which city he was leaving from, but excitement lit up his eyes as he told of the 10+ day journey across the country, hundreds of miles.
I grew up seeing this occasionally underneath my mother’s bed. It was stored there for years, in need of repair. I hope it will live for at least another century in our family now that it’s restored and an active call to prayer again.
Where this crucifix came from is a story in and of itself, and one that I’m sharing partly for public enjoyment but mostly for any family members who might be interested in it in years to come…
At some point in the early years of the last century (after the Spanish-American War but before the 16th Amendment instituted taxation on earnings and paved the way for Prohibition to be financially feasible) a craftsman-salesman arrived on the stoop of a row home in Mayfair, Philadelphia and knocked on the door.
Grace Roth, wife to Charles, answered the door. A first generation American, and specifically a German Catholic, she was a likely buyer. The large and elegant crucifixes this man was selling became somewhat common in her time—many Catholics Philadelphians came to have one, though few have survived to the present.
Little is known about the man, about what motivated Grace’s purchase, or even particularly when the crucifix came to hang in Charles and Grace Roth’s home. But it has survived through time, and as long preserved objects tend to, become an heirloom in my family—because Grace turned out to be my maternal great, great grandmother. After Charles died in the 1920s she lived with her daughter (my great grandmother Nana) in Philadelphia. She came to adore Phillip Bruce, her daughter’s husband. Phillip was a city policeman and well-liked provider, but met an untimely, tragic death in a collision while responding to a fire. Stunned, elderly, and wracked by grief, Grace died within a week.
Her crucifix, and its having been passed down through time to her daughter and to my grandmother and now to me, has had the effect of creating an enduring gift and a point of memory in our family. It’s an heirloom because it connects us across time; connects us to those who came before us and points toward those who are yet to come.