It’s been 75 years since Maxo Vanka finished painting his murals in the St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale but his themes of immigration, war, and social justice still resonate.
“That’s one of the things that people find when they come,” said Anna Doering, Managing Director of the Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka. “I think everyone can see something meaningful in the murals.
“The way Vanka put it himself is that he was painting images with strong social meaning,” she continued. “I think they’re just timeless. Unfortunately we keep coming back to issues of inequality, social inequality, war, injustice, and seeking justice.”
The St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church was the first Croatian church established in America in 1894 to accommodate the growing number of Croatians settling in Millvale. In 1921, after a devastating fire, the Church was rebuilt. The walls were painted white and stayed that way until 1937.
“The priest at the time, Father Albert Zagar, wanted to do something very profound with the walls and he wanted something different,” reported Doering. “He made a connection with Maxo Vanka, a Croatian immigrant to the United States and a painter, and in 1937 Vanka came to the church and painted the first series of murals.”
The murals, especially those done during the second phase in 1941, are strikingly different than those in many Catholic churches.
“A lot of that can be attributed to the vision of the priest in doing something really unique and something that celebrated not only the religious aspect of the church but also the people, the Croatian community that the church served,” she explained. “If you think about the context and the time Vanka was painting in 1937 and 1941, there was a lot going on in the world and obviously in the United States.”
Doering described the priest’s initial instructions to Vanka: “Father Zagar told Vanka he wanted the altar piece and the front two walls to be religious in nature. The altar mural is Mary, Queen of Croatia. But everything else was left to Vanka’s vision.” It became clear the artist wanted to illustrate not only the importance of religion to the Croatian people but the immigrant experience. He also, according to Doering, wanted to make some important social statements about war and inequality in the world.
“Vanka and the priest had a very nice relationship,” she said, “and the priest was open to having that kind of social commentary, especially the issue of social justice, represented on the walls. It was a unique partnership that made that possible.”
The Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka was formed in 1991 to begin the long-term preservation and promotion of the murals. An early fundraising effort involved the staging of “A Gift To America,“ a play by Dr. David Demarest, Jr., and performed by the Iron Clad Agreement Theater Company, which told the story of the creation of the murals.
But things took a major step forward after a hurricane hit Millvale. “There was significant concern about the condition of the murals because when the hurricane came through it had done damage to one side of the church and there was visible water damage to the right side murals,” remembered Doering. “It was one of those things where there was a sense of urgency around needing to make a plan and being proactive about the preservation of the murals.”
Since then, there has been more local, national, and international attention to the murals from different viewpoints. “One is just appreciating them as original, unique works of art here in Pittsburgh,” said Doering. “There’s also the conservation itself which is groundbreaking -- it’s unique in the United States I would say -- by the use of science and technology.”
In addition, the Society has begun to put more emphasis on docent tours and allowing more public access to the murals. This has resulted in less than a thousand people visiting the murals annually to over two thousand people visiting the murals each year. Doering estimates that the number of visitors this year will be significantly higher as the requests for group tours increase.
“They’re really one of those things you do have to see in person,” she said.
To request a tour of the murals, please visit http://vankamurals.org/take-a-tour/.
Photos: Mural detail; Portrait of the artist Maxo Vanka