The observance of Memorial Day in the United States always reminds me of, The Greatest Generation, namely those that fought and sacrificed many human necessities even their own lives to free the world from dictatorial dominance during World War II. While the United States has participated in many wars from the American Revolution, the Civil War, both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, the first Gulf War and the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, many men and women have answered the call to service and sacrifice through military service. We also need to recall and commemorate the millions of Americans that assisted the war efforts over the years through their skills and talents.

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One individual of particular thought is the artist Paula Himmelsbach-Balano. Paula H.Balano was an artist that provided many levels of service to her community and country during the Second World War in multiple ways. She is most famous for her artistic expertise in the designing, drawing and installation of stained glass in many parishes in the Philadelphia metropolitan area. However, I have recently discovered that she provided a much more simple touch in helping military service personnel through her volunteer work at the Stage Door Canteen during the war…sketching the portraits of soldiers, sailors and Marines while sharing coffee, stories and cigarettes, so they might send these portraits home to their families that waited with great anticipation for any word from their sons and daughters in military service. Paula Himmelsbach-Balano was one of thousands that contributed talents and a compassionate ear to many military personnel l away from home and preparing to fight for the freedom of our American liberties and freedoms.

I have recently had the opportunity to photograph some of the exceptional works of stained glass executed by Paula Himmelsbach-Balano at Saint Anthony’s Church in Wilmington, Delaware. During the churches continued renovations during the period of the Second World War, Paula Himmelsbach-Balano worked diligently to install all of the stained glass panels that adorn the church in Wilmington. In addition to the stained glass windows that depict religious themes, one window sequestered away in hallway pays homage to the members of Saint Anthony’s Parish that served in the American armed forces during the great conflict from 1941-1945. The window is especially poignant because it depicts both young men and older men serving as altar servers.  Perhaps the panel is intended to show the transition of maturity of these men from altar boys to men as they returned to Saint Anthony’s Parish after their participation and experiences of war. Maybe the window calls us to keenly remember also the lives disrupted and even sacrificed by war by noting the numbers of those that served and died with encircled stars at the bottom of the panel. Whatever the symbolism, the delicate stained glass window recalls and commemorates the service and sacrifices of the millions of men and women that served our country in many ways, with countless skills and talents to achieve victory and freedom for future generations. I have also been keenly struck by the removal of multiple works by Paula Himmelsbach-Balano from Saint Anthony’s Church in order to insert new examples of stained glass that commemorate the priests that have served as pastors of the parish commissioned new windows. This indeed is a laudable notion and activity. However, in order to celebrate the priestly service of these men, exceptional works of great artistic accomplishment completed by Paula Himmelsbach-Balano were removed and either destroyed or taken away without documentation or any consideration of their historical and artistic importance to the parish, the Diocese of Wilmington or the Catholic  artistic community.  In a real sense of the phrase, Paula Himmelsbach-Balano’s works make another Memorial Day contribution; they are just like the many men and women that have never returned from battle, MIA or Missing in Action.

While the designation, Missing in Action traditionally refers to those lost during military conflict, I suggest the phrase also applies to the many pieces of representational art that is becoming Missing in Action in our Catholic churches as we face a great period of institutional transition when parishes close, merge or even arbitrarily renovate our sacred spaces without proper consideration for the historical and artistic provenance of what is in place in our churches.

While researching the missing stained glass windows at Saint Anthony’s Catholic Church, I was told they were removed and destroyed because they needed multiple repairs.  In photographing the other windows in this church, not one window showed any signs of distress or need of repairs. It strikes me as unfortunate that stained glass windows of superlative artistic and material quality were summarily removed and disguarded in favor of new windows of clerical portraiture lacking artistic quality in both materials and execution could be removed without serious review by professional art experts. Such vandalism of Catholic Church works of art runs rampant as priests make decisions regarding renovations and replacement without the advice and counsel of competent experts in these areas of artistic restoration, renovation, preservation and repairs.

Memorial Day traditionally inspires us to recall our war dead. It also should be a time to remember the men and women of all generations that inspire patriotism to our ideals of a free American Republic. Perhaps as well, there is an opportunity to ignite a particular patriotism and fidelity towards all of the exceptional works of representational art that adorns our Catholic churches. In many ways, the craftsmen, artisans, masons and so on deserve our commemoration and continued attention as we attempt to preserve and memorialize our Catholic artistic heritage into the 21st century.

Preservation of our sometimes crumbling Catholic art patrimony and restoration of these works should always be one of constant concern to our Catholic community. In addition to preservation and restoration, we should actively consider integration of these examples of our Catholic artistic heritage into new churches, so we can celebrate a seamless integration of our artistic past into our Catholic present and future sites of liturgical worship.

I celebrate Memorial Day and gratefully recall the many men and women that made the ultimate sacrifice of their lives in defense of our American way of life. Additionally, I ask all people of faith to honor our artistic and historical legacies and recall the great men and women that have contributed to our artistic Catholic heritage. We cannot allow their works to go MIA ( Missing in Action) without raising a concentrated call for accountability on the part of our priests and parish administrators. Before any decisions are made to replace any examples of artistic expression…there should be a detailed plan that permits the responsible removal and appraisal of the no longer wanted works of art.

Memorial Day calls us to remember…those that gave their lives in battle. Memorial Day also gives us the opportunity to remember those that gave their lives in artistic expression of our Catholic faith through the use of their great God given talents…for the greater glory of God.

Hugh J.McNichol is a Catholic author and journalist that comments on Catholic topics and issues. Hugh studied both philosophy and theology at Philadelphia’s Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary. He is currently in an advanced theology & history degree program at Villanova University in suburban Philadelphia. He writes daily at http://verbumcarofactumest.blogspot.com , http://catholicsacredarts.blogspot.com . Hugh writes on his Irish Catholic parochial experiences at  http://graysferrygrapevine.blogspot.com.
He also contributes writings to The Irish Catholic, Dublin, British Broadcasting Company, and provides Catholic book reviews for multiple Catholic periodicals and publishers, including Vatican Publishing House.
Hugh lives in Delaware’s Brandywine Valley with his wife and daughter.
Hugh welcomes your comments via hugh.mcnichol@verizon.net.


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