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.
Conservation team reattaches Smith’s "The Penitent Prisoner," May 2014.
2013, $50,000
Status: Complete

Saving Unique Evidence of a Prisoner’s Faith

It took just over a year for a team of art conservators to reveal and secure the distinctive and fascinating murals. From June 2013 through August 2014, the team carefully removed the protective Japanese tissue paper and wax that had obscured the paintings for 18 years while preventing the total loss of the 23 paintings murals that line walls of the two rooms used by the Catholic chaplain. Several layers of crumbling wall paint and plaster below the murals 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 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.

Conservation has made it possible for Eastern State to share the paintings and the compelling story behind their creation with historic site visitors who take one of several daily Hands-On History tours of the Catholic Chaplain’s Office. Furthermore, the Catholic Chaplain’s Office powerfully complements the restored synagogue by expanding the discussion of spiritual life at Eastern State - a subject both deeply important to the men and women who lived behind these walls and intriguing for contemporary visitors.

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 (completed spring 2013) sealed the building from the weather, provided climate control, and treated the interior architectural finishes.
  • Phase III (completed August 2014) secured the flaking paint, removed the protective facing, reduced discolored adhesive and grime, and compensated some areas of paint loss.

Eastern State with the help of the Catholic Chaplain's Office Restoration Committee secured more than $677,300 for Phases I through III from a variety of sources, private and public. The outpouring of support for the Catholic Chaplain’s Office restoration project was unprecedented. We are grateful for the gifts, large and small, from more than 500 donors who believed in this project and contributed funds at various stages along the way.