St. Helena in Blue Bell isn’t a new parish, it was founded in 1919, but its present church was built just seven years ago. When Msgr. Joseph Nicolo set out to decorate it with traditional artwork reflecting Old World craftsmanship, he knew just where to go.
He’d first encountered Emanuel Utti in 1985 when he was an assistant pastor at St. Richard Parish in South Philadelphia where Utti had done quite a bit of work for the church. Later in 1998, while pastor at Our Lady of the Rosary in Philadelphia, he hired him to do some needed restoration work and loved the result.Now he’s at St. Helena with a brand new church. Although it has the beautiful altar, reredos and Stations of the Cross from the former St. Ladislaus Church in Philadelphia, the walls were in many ways a blank canvas just waiting for a master’s touch. In the nave, Utti, who also repainted the statues from the former church, executed large circular paintings of the Annunciation and the Coronation of the Virgin to complement the adjacent stained glass.
Above the doorways are images of the four evangelists representing the Word of God the faithful heard at Mass, and now as part of the ongoing work in the narthex, parishioners will see two of Utti’s just completed 8 by 15 foot paintings of that word in action through allegorical depictions of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
“I’m ecstatic with them,” Msgr. Nicolo said, adding he hopes to have Utti execute pictures of the Ascension and the Descent of the Holy Spirit that will flank a Resurrection window and No Room in the Inn and the Flight into Egypt to complement a Nativity window.
Utti doesn’t just paint a picture on the wall. His technique is five centuries old, and involves coming to the church to first design and put full-sized images on paper, which he takes to his Lafayette Hill studio and stencils onto cotton canvas for painting. The murals are then glued to the wall, after which he paints the final touches.
As for the final result, “it’s fantastic that between Msgr. Nicolo and Mr. Utti they are able to do this,” said St. Helena parishioner Donna Matoney. “Our church is so serene; it’s humbling to be there. It is a wonderful, wonderful building.”
Utti, who is 78, apprenticed as a teen in South Philadelphia under Mario Sgamati, a master painter who learned his craft in Naples. As a matter of fact, Sgambati used him as a model for a figure of Christ in St. Mary Magdalen Church. With ongoing studies at art schools and also in New York and Europe, Utti set out on a career he has followed ever since, specializing in ecclesiastical art, mostly originals but sometimes restorations.
He’s done work for many churches, Catholic and Protestant, including no less than 70 paintings for his own parish, SS. Cosmas and Damian in Conshohocken. Among his non-ecclesiastical works, he restored the gold work at the Academy of Fine Arts at the time of the Bicentennial.
His favorite method remains painting on canvas which is then fastened to the wall, practically a lost art, a method that he explained is much more permanent than painting on the plaster itself. “It will last many, many years,” he said. “My friends tell me I’m the last of my time to do this.”
His work at St. Helena’s is among his favorite, and although he’s at an age when most men are retired, he looks forward to the next project at the church.
“Msgr. Nicolo has done a marvelous job in assembling the old and the new; he likes the old classical style,” he said.