Conserving the Murals of the Catholic Chaplain’s Office

Conservator Peg Olley examines "The Communion of Saints," 2012.
Lester Smith, Catholic Chaplain’s Office muralist, poses with a selection of his other paintings, ca. 1955.
Father Edwin Gallagher, Catholic Chaplain 1952-1958, meets with an inmate sometime before Lester Smith painted the murals.
"The Penitent Prisoner," ca. 1955.
Visitors come face to face with the murals via a Hands-On History experience, 2011.
Leslie Johnson, granddaughter of Lester Smith, and Coach Herb Magee, nephew of Father Edwin Gallagher, met May 2013.
Paintings conservator Mary McGinn working on the Mysteries of the Rosary murals around the base of the skylight, June 2013.
Conservator Lauren Cox Kelly secures flaking paint on the Penitent Prisoner mural, May 2014.
St. Martin de Porres mural before treatment. The mural exhibits cracking and flaking paint, grime and discoloration.
St. Martin de Porres during treatments. After months of work, conservators secured the paint back to the wall.
2013, $50,000
Status: Underway

Saving Unique Evidence of a Prisoner’s Faith

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The art conservators are in the home stretch of conserving the religious murals in the Catholic Chaplain’s Office. This is the final phase of preservation. Over the fall and winter they have continued the painstaking process of reattaching tiny fragments to the 23 murals that line walls of the two rooms used by the Catholic chaplain. Several layers of crumbling wall paint and plaster below the murals have made this project especially challenging.

Inmate Lester Smith painted the murals in 1955 and used the signature “Paul Martin” to honor his two favorite saints. Smith was a self-taught artist who had converted to Catholicism in prison before coming to Eastern State. When Father Edwin Gallagher, the penitentiary’s Catholic Chaplain (1952-1958), witnessed Smith painting in his cell, he invited the inmate to decorate the offices where he met with and counseled inmates. Father Gallagher had a reputation for bringing out the best in others. Apparently, Smith was no exception. He painted nearly every day of his incarceration and left behind beautiful and moving images to inspire others. These remarkable and extremely fragile paintings vividly set the Catholic chaplain’s rooms apart from the rooms used by the other the other chaplains. Most striking and personal is the mural of the kneeling prisoner seeking absolution through his confession. These murals remain a testament to the story of one inmate who underwent a powerful change while in prison.

This major preservation project is nearly finished. Until recently, the Catholic Chaplain’s Office was completely closed to the public. Proceeds from the 2010 Annual Appeal advanced the stabilization of the small building over the past four years and made it possible for Eastern State to welcome small groups inside both to see the paintings and learn about the ongoing effort to save them. Mural conservation is the final of three phases.

Conservation will allow Eastern State to share the paintings and the compelling story behind their creation with an even broader audience, annually now more than 180,000 visitors. Furthermore, the Catholic Chaplain’s Office will give Eastern State a powerful setting that complements the restored synagogue, for expanding the discussion of spiritual life at Eastern State. This was a subject of deep importance to the men and women who lived behind these walls and it continues to intrigue visitors today.

Summary of the three-phase restoration project:

  • Phase I (100% complete) included historical research and an in-depth analysis of the deteriorated building and the murals. The study detailed proposed treatments for structural preservation, interior finishes and murals.
  • Phase II (to be completed Spring 2013) seals the building from the weather, provides climate control, and treats the interior architectural finishes.
  • Phase III (to be completed August 2014) secures the flaking paint, removes the protective facing, reduces discolored adhesive and grime, and compensates some areas of paint loss.

    Help complete the funding for the mural conservation. Only $15,000 more to go! We are grateful for the gifts, large and small, from more than 500 donors who have believed in this project and contributed funds to this phase or the earlier two phases. Click here to make an online gift and join their ranks.

    Opportunities exist to underwrite the conservation of a particular mural. Contact Elyssa Kane, Director of Advancement and Membership, (215) 236-5111 x17 or for more information.

    All gifts will help finish matching the lead grant from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage through the Heritage Philadelphia Program which supports both Phases II and III of the project.

    Fundraising Progress

    The Catholic Chaplain's Office Restoration Committee has raised both awareness of the project and secured more than $547,000 of the total $600,000 for Phases I through III from a variety of sources, private and public.

    In addition to the lead grant from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, critical support has also come from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The roofing work was made possible by a 2012 Keystone Historic Preservation Project grant from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and the matching funds secured for this specific aspect of the project.

    The outpouring of support for the Catholic Chaplain’s Office restoration project has been unprecedented, attracting more donors than any other Eastern State preservation project. The 2013 Annual Appeal is a major aspect of finishing the funding for this project, which has attracted national attention.