Saving the saints: St. Ninian’s restoration reveals art history in Antigonish


Michelle Gallinger spends more than nine hours a day pressed against the grand walls of St. Ninian’s Cathedral.

She’s slowly revealing a piece of Canadian history that’s been hidden for decades.

Under the painted walls and columns of the Antigonish, N.S., church, is an extraordinary mural by Quebec painter Ozias Leduc.

Gallinger, a fine arts conservator based in Dartmouth, considers him the Michelangelo of Canada.

“It’s pretty exciting. You get to have your hands on somebody’s painting who nobody has seen in its entirety since 1937,” said Gallinger.

Leduc has been recognized by the federal government as a national historic person, a designation given to people who’ve made unique and enduring contributions to Canada’s history.

He painted 150 churches, mostly in his home province. Gallinger said St. Ninian’s is the only one in Eastern Canada.

Leduc and his team painted the church in 1902, 26 years after the cathedral opened.

His work covered the entire interior from floor to ceiling. But in 1937, the cathedral needed an update and the first layer of paint was added, covering up some of the murals.

For three months, Michelle Gallinger and her team have been standing on scaffolding at the top of St. Ninian’s Cathedral, restoring murals by hand. (Robert Short/CBC)

Over the years, as many as seven layers of paint covered up the masterpiece, leaving only some of the saints exposed. They became known as the “floating saints.” 

The rose medallions on the ceiling were filled in. They’re now blue circles, but their intricate designs can be seen peeking through the layers.

Most people have no idea what’s actually on St. Ninian’s walls.

“The columns are actually painted marble,” said Gallinger. “On the outside aisles, the Stations of the Cross are all painted by Ozias Leduc and there are stencils that go up the wall.”

Two angels on the walls hadn’t been seen since 1957, when they were completely painted over. Damage caused by a steam leak at the cathedral caused layers of paint to peel away. (Robert Short/CBC)

It’s Gallinger’s job to bring that work back to life, and she’s working against the clock to save Leduc’s masterpiece.

A few years ago, there was a steam leak inside the cathedral that travelled up the columns.

“That actually caused the paint and all the subsequent layers to flake off or come forward,” said Gallinger. Those curling pieces of paint are taking the original mural with them.

In 2012, the church decided to start a campaign to save the murals. It started fundraising and every time donations total $80,000, Gallinger comes in with her team to save two saints.

In all, it’s expected the work will cost more than half a million dollars.

“The best part of it is when you get to take the four layers of artist paint off the faces. They no longer look dead or tired — they come alive,” said Gallinger.

The restoration team is using stencils to fill in some missing pieces of Ozias Leduc’s original mural. (Robert Short/CBC)

In this phase of the project, Gallinger and two of her colleagues have been tasked with revealing two saints, Matthias and Peter, as well as two angels that have been completely covered since 1957.

It’s incredibly slow, detailed work that is done by hand.

“We actually have to glue it all back down using steam irons and adhesive and hot irons,” Gallinger said of the peeling paint.

“Then we have to use what’s called a poultice, which is basically a wad of cotton with a solvent on it, to remove the top layers down to the original layer.”

Ozias Leduc originally painted St. Ninian’s from floor to ceiling. The blue circles were filled with rose medallions. While some parts have been restored, other sections are now flaking away. (Robert Short/CBC)

Once the layers are removed, she can see the original brushstrokes and paint colours.

“Right now, the two angels are just standing on clouds and it’s just glorious to see them,” she said.

But the damage of time is clear: some parts of the walls have peeled in large chunks, leaving behind blank white sections. That’s where Gallinger and her team are trying to fill in the blanks with their own paint.

“We will put a fine art varnish on it,” she explained. “They could always take our overpaint off without ever affecting the original Leduc.”

Michelle Gallinger says they were fortunate to find a few old photos of St. Ninian’s that were stored in Quebec. She’s using those to fill in missing sections of Ozias Leduc’s original mural. (Robert Short/CBC)

Rev. Donald MacGillivray, rector of St. Ninian’s, has been watching the church walls transform.

“Beauty is important,” he said. “The artwork here was made beautiful, and to have it restored brings beauty back into the building.”

He said it is incredible that people have been willing to donate to the project over the years. Every dollar has been an anonymous contribution.

“People come up to me and say, ‘I want to give money to help with this, but I don’t want my name to be known.'”

St. Ninian’s still has to raise $280,000 to restore the remaining seven saints. The cathedral hopes to finish the project in three years. (Robert Short/CBC)

The church is filled with posters showing old photos that give hints of what’s hidden on the walls, and explaining the work that needs to go into each of the saints.

When this phase finishes up next week, St. Ninian’s still has seven saints to save.

MacGillivray’s goal is to have the money raised in the next two or three years.

And while he waits to bring Gallinger’s team back to Antigonish, MacGillivray takes the time to appreciate the section that they have almost completely transformed.

“It’s wonderful,” he said.

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