Karen Adams, Special to The Catholic Virginian

After more than 30 years in storage at the Catholic Historical Museum of the Roanoke Valley, the Stations of the Cross that had originally graced St. Gerard Catholic Church, Roanoke, have been repaired, repainted and are re-inspiring parishioners of all ages.

Father Ken Shuping, pastor at St. Gerard, explained that while some elder parishioners remembered the original stations, which are more than 60 years old, most people had never seen them. When the church was renovated in the 1980s, the plaster stations were taken down, given to the museum and replaced by smaller, wooden ones. 

In repairing and repainting the Stations of the Cross, Louise Nataluk progressively deepened the blue from the first station, above, to the last in order to show how the day darkened. (Photos/Karen Adams)

Those small wooden crosses, whose numbers, words and images were hard to see, seemed out of place after the completion of St. Gerard’s renovation in 2017, Father Shuping said. Many people noted that the wooden stations seemed inadequate for the new, brighter space. 

Shortly after that renovation, the parish heard from local Catholic Historical Museum director Cheri Hughes. She said the old stations were there and wondered if the church wanted them back.

But after years of being packed away and moved around, many of the stations were damaged. Some were cracked or had holes and pieces missing. 

Parishioner and artist Louise Nataluk, who had experience restoring statues in the Roanoke Valley, offered to try to repair and repaint the plaster stations. 

She did the work, which took about six months, as a donation. 

“I have been very fortunate in my life, and this is one thing I can do to give back to God,” Nataluk said.

Her husband, Mike, did the structural repair, which required bolting, drilling, wiring and gluing. After that, she filled in any missing plaster, sanded it, then painted and hand-lettered each scene with a calligraphy pen. 

“Some were worse than others and required a great deal of time,” Louise Nataluk said. 

Each station is white with gold highlights, black lettering and a blue background. The color scheme complements the light walls and does not compete with the bright stained-glass windows that surround the stations, she said. 

One powerful effect Nataluk used was deepening the hue of the blue paint as the stations progress. The first station has a pale blue background, like that on a clear, sunny day. By the 14th station, the background is a dark gray blue, reminiscent of a stormy sky.

“I wanted it to be true to the story,” she said, “because when Jesus died at the end of the day, the sky became dark and cloudy.”

During the project, Louise Nataluk said it made her more reflective. 

“We thought a lot about the meaning of all of this,” she said. “And now, we’ve heard that it means so much to so many people.”

After the careful work was completed, the restored stations were hung on the newly painted church walls prior to Lent.

“It was so nice during Lent to have them there,” Father Shuping said. 

Jim Allen, St. Gerard business manager, said, “It really feels like divine intervention that most people didn’t even know about these old stations until the museum told us, and that we had someone in our parish who could do the special restoration, and all in time for Lent. It’s a miracle, really.”

He added that it’s a “gift that keeps on giving” every time someone enters the worship space.

Father Shuping noted that when he stops by the sanctuary, he often sees a parishioner or two, and sometimes people he does not recognize, praying the Stations of the Cross. People also notice the images during Mass. It’s another way for the multicultural church, which includes many Hispanic and African (Burundian) parishioners, to come together.

“Now it’s something that people really look at and think about,” he said. “It brings the whole story more alive.”

Stations impact youths’ lives

When St. Gerard Parish, Roanoke, restored and rehung its original stations of the cross just before Lent, parishioner and religious education instructor Tom Carr thought the powerful images could be meaningful to the parish’s youth. He knew that some students might learn them more deeply, and others might be learning them for the first time.

“That’s God talking to them through the stations of the cross, and they can listen and see what it means to them,” said Carr, who teaches the parish’s middle school students. “So we began to study each scene and think about our own lives at the same time.”

Co-instructor Miriam Ornelas added that students learned what was happening in each scene and paid close attention. 

“It seems more real to them now,” she said. “And it does to me, too, because when you teach this you learn even more about it.” 

While praying the stations with their classmates, the students wrote reflections, such as “Lord, help me focus more on you” or “Help me to be less distracted.” They would also be reminded of situations in their own lives when someone was mistreated, for example, and how they might respond to it.

“I found it very interesting, learning how all the parts of the story led up to Jesus’ crucifixion,” said Naydelin Morales, 13, noting in particular the image of St. Veronica wiping Jesus’ face. “She knew what the consequences would be if she helped him, but she did it anyway.” 

Carlos Diaz, 14, was especially moved by the station that depicts Jesus falling for the third time. 

“I think more often now about his pain,” he said. “And I also think about how sad it was that Mary had to suffer so much by watching her son go through it.”

Both students, who had not prayed the stations before, said that the experience has changed their prayer lives. 

“I pray much more now for my family,” Diaz said. 

Morales said that besides praying for her own family, she also prays more often for other people, including strangers, who might need help. 

“And when I pray, I remember that in any situation, I can pull through because Jesus is always with me,” she said.