How a massive tear across the portrait of OSF Saint Francis Medical Center's founder was mended
A portrait of OSF HealthCare's founding mother was badly damaged somewhere down the line. A tear through the canvas painting rent the face of Mother Frances Krasse in two.
But art conservationists healed that wound with some painstaking work.
The Sisters of the Third Order of Saint Francis of Peoria live quietly in their motherhouse, nestled in a secluded alcove off a major highway just outside Germantown Hills in Woodford County.
The order was founded in Germany. OSF HealthCare archivist Allison Carr said they fled to the United States to escape religious persecution, and ended up in Iowa City, Iowa.
The sisters were impoverished in their early years in America. In 1876, they were invited by a Peoria parish priest to come to the city to help found a new hospital.
What started in 1877 as the sisters caring for patients in a rented home on Adams Street eventually grew into the hospital system spread throughout Illinois and Michigan today.
Bishop John Spaulding, the first bishop of the diocese of Peoria, lobbied to allow the sisters to become a new Franciscan congregation. He helped them acquire the land for the new Saint Francis hospital.
A portrait of Mother Frances Krasse hangs in the dining room where the sisters take their meals. Carr said the painting holds a cherished place among the sisters.
"There's just not very many images of her. So it looks like one of the photographs that we have," she said.
The 32 by 48 square inch oil-based portrait is based off a photograph of Mother Frances, as she poses before Saint Francis Hospital in Peoria. The Reverend Gerard Warnke from St. Bede's Abbey in Peru created the portrait in the 1920s to mark the hospital's fiftieth anniversary.
Over time, soot from candle burning built up on the painting's surface, dulling its once-vibrant colors. But perhaps more significant was what happened during a renovation of the motherhouse.
"Somehow it was damaged. So the tear was pretty much clear through the painting, and especially over her face area," said Carr. "So it was very, very badly damaged."
The Conservation Center in Chicago was contacted to repair the painting. Michael Young is a senior paintings conservator there. He regularly works with paintings in various states of distress.
"This painting on the surface looks like it's pretty badly damaged, and it is a pretty bad tear," he said. "But once we looked at it and examined it, the canvas itself was in pretty good shape. It wasn't brittle or compromised, aside from the massive tear."
Young says torn paintings sometimes get worn out or distorted, making it difficult to line the edges back up. But the tear across Mother Frances' portrait was clean. The conservator got to work via a process called re-weaving.
"It's kind of a laborious process," he said. "We actually have to get under the microscope and make tiny little threads. We then use adhesives to essentially bridge the gap between the pair and basically weave the canvas back together."
Young says it took about forty hours to repair the tear, clean up the painting's surface, and fill in the damaged areas. He said while a big tear can be intimidating, the work becomes more manageable and predictable as it progresses.
"Some people might have said oh, well, this is a loss. There's nothing we can do with this important piece of our institutional history," he said. "But they bring it to a place like ours and we're able to give them back something that they can continue that history with."
Senior paintings conservator Amber Schabdach said restoring this piece was a special job for the Conservation Center.
"We knew that this particular portrait of this nun was very important to the OSF and the nurses and the hospital system and everything about the order of these nuns," she said. "And so when we get someone that brings in something that has a story like this, and we get to hear it before we even start treatment or look at it, it also makes the the artwork more endearing to us."
Carr says the restoration job took several months. When the painting was returned, she said the colors popped in a way they hadn't before, and the previous tear was virtually undetectable.
"The sisters were astounded they and they loved it. It's a cherished possession. It's always with them. They spent a lot of time in the dining room. So it's their founding mother. So everything is based on her," Carr said.
Carr quoted Krasse's dying words in 1885.
"She says dear sisters, Keep yourselves in strict accord with the rules and statutes, live in meekness and obedience, nurse the sick with the greatest care and love, then will God's blessing be with you. And if anybody's been around OSF at all, serving with the greatest care and love is at the tagline, so that's directly from her," she said.