‘The Dance of Innocence’ mural restoration is part of larger church renovation

This story appeared in the September issue of PRC’s Preservation in Print magazine. Interested in getting more preservation stories like this delivered to your door? Become a member of the PRC for a subscription!

Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic Church in St. Roch recently completed a multi-year restoration of its 1931 sanctuary, repairing damage first caused by Hurricane Katrina and then exacerbated by several subsequent storms, including Hurricane Ida in 2021. The renovation saved the building, its original stained-glass windows and a treasured mural painted by a local artist to reflect the rich diversity of the congregation.

“I’m so grateful that the whole community wants to see our church beautified,” said the Rev. Emanuel R. Tanu, pastor of Our Lady Star of the Sea, who added that many parishioners contributed to the restoration project, which also was funded by the Archdiocese of New Orleans and the church parish.

Damage from all the storms had caused structural problems that threatened the stained glass, the plaster decorations and the mural on the rear wall. “The faces of Mother Mary and the angels were peeling off,” said Father Emmanuel. “It needed a lot of work.”

The mural damage was particularly heartbreaking as the paintings were unique to the church, painted by artist Vernon Dobard as part of a renovation in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Prior to 1999, the church featured a mural that depicted Mary in a gothic style, attended by eight very traditional — and very white — angels. Given the multi-ethnic nature of the congregation, as well as the deteriorated condition of the original painting, Dobard, with the blessing of the church’s then pastor, the Rev. Tony Ricard, re-interpretated the sacred depiction.


“Vernon looked at the wall and saw different angels, angels that were trying to get out,” remembered Father Tony, who admits to having a little skepticism at the time. But Dobard assured him that he could return the painting to the original angels if the results were not acceptable.

Being a man known for his gentle humor, Father Tony endorsed the new approach. “The people in the pews were a little darker than the angels on the walls, so I said, ‘Sure, give them a little tan,’” he said.

“I used the Old Masters approach, painting with oil directly onto the wall,” Dobard said. “I refer to my paintings as sacred realism, through the lens of my deeply held Roman Catholic beliefs. I focused on beauty. Beauty is my approach to God, beauty is a gift from God. Beauty is a glimpse of God.”

Dobard completed the painting, called “The Dance of Holy Innocence,” in 2001, just four years before Hurricane Katrina roared into town, causing water damage that was not immediately noticeable in the church. Subsequent storms added to the problems, and by 2019, leaks in the building were causing serious damage.

“The faces of Mother Mary and the angels were peeling off,” Father Emmanuel said.

Artist Vernon Dobard originally painted the mural during the renovation of the church in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Photos by Charles E. Leche.

Work began on the repairs while the church, particularly the Building and Grounds Committee, considered what to do about the mural. Restoring the Dobard painting was not a given. Other options ranged from restoring the original 1931 mural to creating an entirely new piece. After inspections and deliberations, though, the congregation voted to restore “The Dance of Holy Innocence.”

“I’m used to seeing things that are in really bad shape,” said Elise Grenier, the art conservator who was brought in for the project. “So, to me, this looked like something that could definitely be restored.

“I was really happy that they chose to restore the Dobard mural,” she added. “It attests to the rebirth of the church and the parish.”

Grenier worked in Italy for 35 years, including spending six years working on the famed cathedral in Florence. She had returned to New Orleans in 2000, where her projects have included the St. Joseph Catholic Church on Tulane Avenue and the Art Deco murals at the Lakefront Airport.


Despite Grenier’s initial assessment, there were plenty of challenges. Leaks in the roof and wall had created significant structural lesions, and the stained-glass window directly above the mural was leaking to the point that the piece was close to being lost.

At this point, the mural restoration was put on hold so that structural repairs could be made. As part of the process, the church reached out to the company that had created and installed the stained-glass window back in 1931. The company, Emil Frei Glass of St. Louis, Mo., is still in business, and Steven Frei, a descendent of the company’s founder, traveled to New Orleans and placed a temporary, watertight cover over the window.

The church also tapped Gurtler Brothers engineering firm; Roof Tech; and Volker Waterproofing to work on the project. Finally, the structural repairs wrapped up in October 2021. Later that month, the Frei Glass company completed repairs to the window and removed the temporary cover.

Gurtler Brothers, Roof Tech and Volker Waterproofing worked on the renovation of the church, fixing damage from multiple storms, while art conservator Elise Grenier restored the mural. Photos by Charles E. Leche.

With that done, Grenier turned her attention back to the mural. She oversaw three crews working on different aspects of the project with the goal of saving as much of the original material as possible.

Areas of the mortar surface that were failing had to be removed and replaced, and the entire surface had to be delicately scoured. Volker Waterproofing also helped with removing those portions of the plaster that were not salvageable, and Porre Plastering, which aided with both the removal and stabilization processes. Grenier’s team completed the final wall restoration, with specialized filler imported from Italy.

Finally, in late March, this delicate process was completed. Then, at last, the painting itself could be retouched where necessary.

Fortunately, Grenier noted, “the parishioners have been very, very patient.”

The work of restoring the mural is now complete (though other repairs to the church are ongoing), and the mural and wall are, according to Grenier, “pretty well preserved for the foreseeable future. I can’t see any reason why this wouldn’t be stable for the next hundred years or more.”

“Seeing the enthusiasm of the parishioners who thought this was going to be lost has been wonderful,” Grenier said. “I’m really grateful that they trusted me to do this.”

Dobard said he was deeply honored that the parishioners opted to restore the painting. “The angels always stay with me,” he said.

“The restoration is a sign that the parish is alive and well, that the fight to keep it open after Katrina was worth it,” Father Tony said. “The painting has helped so many people with their journey in faith. People are able to look at the images and connect so readily to the power of God, the power of love.

“It brought heaven down to earth,” he said.