ANN ARBOR, MI — St. Thomas the Apostle Church once featured beautiful murals of the church’s namesake, but as time took it’s toll on the historic structure they were whitewashed and covered up.
Now, three new ceiling murals highlighting St. Thomas are back inside the Catholic church.
“When it was first built, (there were) some beautiful murals inside the church, and now 120 some years later, there were no murals in the church, zero,” said the Rev. William Ashbaugh, the Ann Arbor church’s pastor. “We looked at some old pictures and said, ‘Hey, why don’t we try to restore some of those murals. Before the renovation, you could walk into St. Thomas church and have absolutely no idea that it was related to St. Thomas at all.”
St. Thomas the Apostle Church was founded in Ann Arbor in 1845, Ashbaugh said. The first church was built on the corner of East Kinsley and North Division streets. The current church was built in 1899 at 530 Elizabeth St., about a block or two away from the original, he said.
In 2016, Ashbaugh and other members of the parish decided the church could use “beautification,” Ashbaugh said. They developed a team to lead the project.
“The church was already beautiful, but we thought, a lot of people come here, it’s a historical church, let’s make it even more beautiful,” Ashbaugh said. “There had been steps to do that in the 1980s. They uncovered stained glass windows that had been sealed up.”
The church hired Conrad Schmitt Studios, Inc., a company specializing in decorative painting, murals, gilding, stained glass windows, and more. Work on the murals began in 2020.
“Some of the unique things about this project is (Ashbaugh) really had some ideas, things that he wanted to reinforce and he wanted those details in the murals and in the decoration itself,” said Kevin Grabowski, Conrad Schmitt Studios, Inc. national projects director. “It wasn’t just decoration for the sake of decoration. He had really specific themes he was trying to bring across in artwork and that was really fun to work with and be able to create meaning, not just imagery, but imagery that had meaning.”
Seven artists worked six months to create the murals inside of the church’s dome, one in the middle and the others on each side, Grabowski said.
The side murals represent the history of St. Thomas, from initially being a doubter of Jesus Christ to having Christ appear before him and take away his doubt by showing him his wounds, Ashbaugh said. They also depict St. Thomas’s death of being martyred, similarly to Christ, he said.
The center mural shows Christ ascending to heaven, a mural that had originally been located there before it faded away over time, Ashbaugh said.
“We’re hoping that it’ll bring back some hope into people’s hearts. It’ll bring healing. There has been so much loss and sorrow in so many ways, isolation,” Ashbaugh said. “And what we’re hoping to show even through this terrible darkness that has really inflicted us all, that there is light, there is hope, there is joy present and beauty present. And hopefully as they see the beauty inside they know that the beauty is also inside them.”
St. Thomas the Apostle Church conducted services outside during the summer and fall months last year to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19, Ashbaugh said. Right now services are being done both in person and virtually, he said.
“The attendance at this point has started to increase,” Ashbaugh said. “We’ve been in the gym, the parish hall, we had tried to have multiple masses going on depending on what the situation is. But now I think people are starting to feel more confident that they can come back and be in person.”