St. Mary's Academy Murals

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Standing in front of an exhibit about St. Mary’s Academy at the Fort Crawford Museum in Prairie du Chien are Terry Meyer of the city of Prairie du Chien, donors to the conservation of the murals Mark and Kati Wanek Forsythe, Prairie du Chien Historical Society President Mary Elise Antoine, donor Sally Kaber White, donor Mary Beth Specht of Clinicare, Inc., and conservator David Spangler. (Photo by Ted Pennekamp)


Historic murals to be restored

By Ted Pennekamp


In 2015, through the generosity of several people, funds were donated for the conservation of several murals which had been displayed in the former Wyalusing Academy, 601 S. Beaumont Road, Prairie du Chien. The murals will now be restored by painting conservator David Spangler of De Soto.  

Following the closing of Wyalusing Academy in November of 2013, ownership of a series of murals in the academy was transferred to the Prairie du Chien Historical Society along with two murals which were removed from the academy several years ago. 

The historical society contracted with Spangler who, in late May and early June of 2014, carefully removed the murals from some walls in the main building and prepared them for storage in the Fort Crawford Museum until they could be conserved. The removal of the murals was funded by a donation of several thousand dollars from Mark and Kati Forsythe. Following the removal, Spangler prepared a condition report and proposed treatment for the murals which had been water damaged and also had paint flaked off in several areas.  

Two of the murals depict the natural beauty of the Upper Mississippi River Valley. The other murals presented a tableau depicting important events which occurred along the Mississippi River. They were painted in about 1910 by Sister Mary Gertrude (Ida Mary Klein), a School Sister of Notre Dame who taught art at St. Mary’s Academy. The murals adorned rooms that were part of St. Mary’s Academy (1872-1968). St. Mary’s Academy became Wyalusing Academy in 1969. 

Spangler said that the thin canvas for the murals had been placed into position and adhered to the walls with wheat paste before the various scenes were painted so many years ago.

Sister Gertrude gave a title to each mural she painted. The two river scenes are Maiden Rock and the Mouth of the Wisconsin. The scenes in the tableau are: La Salle at the Mouth of the Mississippi 1682, Discovery of the Mississippi by Father Marquette 1673, Father Hennepin at the Falls of St. Anthony 1680, Burial of De Soto 1542, The Surrender of Red Bird to Major Whistler 1827, and Old Fort Crawford. 

Spangler said that the tableau consisted of six panels. The biggest panel stretched the length of one wall and was 17 feet long and 32 inches high. This panel depicted three scenes. 

“The conservation will probably take the rest of the year,” said Spangler about the restoration project. He noted that the murals will be cleaned and an adhesive applied to the backs of the canvasses in order to help prevent more flaking of paint. Spangler said he will paint in the areas where paint has flaked off and to remove water streaks. 

“Conservation is preservation,” said Spangler. “We want to make sure that these murals don’t get damaged in the future.” After the murals have been restored, Spangler will apply picture varnish to help protect them and also to help bring out the colors. The picture varnish can safely be removed in the future as can the non-yellowing polyvinyl acetate paint that Spangler uses. 

Spangler said that lining materials will also be applied to the backs of the canvasses to add more strength. Once the murals are fully conserved and stabilized, they should last about 200 years before needing more conservation work, said Spangler.

“I hope to mount the canvasses on stretcher frames,” said Spangler who will prepare a proposal for the mounting.

Mary Antoine said that it is not yet known where the restored murals will be eventually displayed. If they were to be displayed in the Fort Crawford Museum, a lot of other exhibits would have to be rearranged, she said. 

Antoine noted that the conservation effort costs a lot of money and that donations are still gladly being accepted. In addition to Mark and Kati Forsythe, other donors include Sally Kaber White, the daughters of Frank and Mary J. Antoine, the Alliant Energy Foundation who donated through a grant written by City Planner Garth Frable, and several graduates of St. Mary’s Academy who each made small donations.

Those interested in donating can contact Mary Elise Antoine at (608) 326-4410.

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