For many years little was known about the Reverend Gleb Evgeniovitch Werchovsky who was selected by the founding pastor, Msgr. Rempke, to design and decorate the interior of Saint Clement Church. Shortly after the renovation of the church in 1988, Fr. Werchovsky's granddaughter visited our church and shared with us the life of this "mystery man" who was artist, priest, and father.
Gleb Eveniovitch Werchovsky was born on November 5, 1888, in St. Petersburg, Russia. His father was an engineer and architect as well as a wealthy landowner of noble birth. His mother, Marie Starck, was of German ancestry. As a young student at the Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Gleb was drawn through his study of art to the Roman Catholic Church and at 20 he converted. He enrolled at the University of Innsbruck, Austria to study theology and completed his theological studies at a Jesuit college in Belgium. He was ordained a priest of the Ruthenian rite in 1914 in Lviv by Metropolitan Andrew Sheptycky. (Based in southwestern Ukraine, the Ruthenian Catholic Church, while closely related to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in language, customs and traditions, is subject to the Holy See.) With the outbreak of the First World War he went to Constantinople to study Byzantine art. After spending some time in Rome, he returned to St. Petersburg to serve as chaplain to the Maltese community.
The Russian revolution in 1917 brought upheaval and oppression. Fr. Werchovsky went to the Ukraine where, under the Cossack leadership, he assisted in the preservation of cultural artifacts and artwork. In Kiev on February 20, 1920, Fr. Werchovsky married Natalia Evgeniovna von Stein, a professor with a diploma in the Faculty of Philology and History. Natalia (born on August 5, 1890 in Lgoff, Kursk, Russia) had converted to Roman Catholicism while studying at the Sorbonne in Paris. On February 26, 1921, their son, Ignatius was born.
After the Bolshevik takeover, Fr. Werchovsky aided Russian immigrants in Prague. He and his wife considered their options for the future: Paris, where many Russian artists were taking refuge, or Constantinople, with the opportunity to become more immersed in Byzantine art. The decision was made for him when Pope Pius XI, who assigned Fr. Werchovsky to St. Michael the Archangel Ukrainian Church in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, a French/Russian community that was in need of a liturgical artist. Fr. Gleb, Natalia and Ignatius arrived in New York on March 9, 1925, and spent four years in Rhode Island. Two daughters, Anastasia and Andronica, were added to the family.
By August 1929, Fr. Gleb and his family were in Chicago where he was assigned to St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church at Oakley and Rice. There he created various murals, some of which still remain in the sanctuary. He also decorated the church of Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (which has since been sold).
In 1930 Msgr. Francis A. Rempe commissioned Fr. Werchovsky to develop a design for the interior decoration of Saint Clement Church. This appears to have been Fr. Werchovsky's main project in the Chicago area. To create the decorative program he drew upon his Russian background, his training as an artist, his knowledge of Byzantine art, and perhaps one can imagine, his personal knowledge of the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome. He created a symbolic Byzantine universe within the walls of a Romanesque building. The coordinating principle is a painting in the apse that replicates the eleventh century tree of life mosaic in San Clemente. This image recalls the fundamental mystery of our faith--our redemption in Christ which is celebrated at each liturgy. Fr. Werchovsky's creative touch is also found in this painting. The eyes of the figure of Christ are open, gazing at the viewer, whereas in San Clemente the form is of the dead Christ. Also, as a remembrance of the founding pastor, the figure of his parrot was added to a branch of the tree.
On the main arch is a painting of Christ in glory (Pantocrator) with Mary and Saint Clement in the orans (praying position) on either side. On the rear arch is an image of the adoration of the Trinity in heaven, symbolized by the throne, and adored by angels and saints. On the lateral arches are original depictions of two miracles attributed to Saint Clement. Under the four arches are portraits of saints on a rich, golden background, symbolizing their sanctity. In the dome, the canopy of heaven, are figures of angels, clouds, stars, and the traditional signs of the zodiac. On the pendentives under the dome are the four evangelists with their symbols. The placement and the style of all these figures follow the canons of Byzantine art.
The stenciled walls create the illusion of a shimmering screen of heavenly radiance, which flows into and unites the surrounding space. The thirty-one stencil patterns are variations of a cross within interlocking circles. The intricate pattern and carefully composed vibrant coloration give the space great visual energy. Trompe l'oeil stonework covers the piers in tan marble and the pillars in dramatic green and white marble. The barrel vault of the nave honors Mary with symbols from the Litany of Loreto within large interlocking circles.
In November 1930 in the Silver Jubilee Book, Msgr. Rempe described his search for an artist and the work of Fr. Werchovsky as follows:
Long and earnestly had he (Msgr. Rempe) sought for a design that would embody his ideas of a dignified interior with such pictures and symbols as would lift the minds of the people to the things on high. (He had a proposal from Arthur Hercz which he rejected.) By accident, if there is such a thing, he came upon a man who gave every promise of possessing the necessary ability for this work: the Reverend Gleb Werchovsky, a Russian priest, who before taking up his studies for the ministry had graduated from the Fine Arts Academy at St. Petersburg. The sketches he submitted presented subjects that were very fascinating, though unusual. It took some time to assimilate these. But after much thought and study, and extensive comparisons with old and new creations in the decorative line, the decision was finally made, and the work begun in June 1930. It is now completed. Of the impression that it has made it is probably best to say nothing at all lest we might seem to exaggerate. Let us rather take time to unlock the treasure-house of its rare symbolism. (He goes on to describe the art and it meaning.)
The extraordinary unity of the design and integrated color palette indicate the creative talent of the artist, Fr. Werchovsky. We are blessed to be wrapped in this treasure-house of rare symbolism, which can raise our hearts and minds in praise of God.
After suffering several strokes over two years, Fr. Werchovsky died on April 11, 1935, at Alexian Brothers Hospital at age 47. He was buried on April 13, 1935, from Nativity of the BVM Church with Bishop William D. O'Brien representing Cardinal Mundelein. Others in attendance were Most Rev. Abbott Valentine Kohlbeck, OSB of St. Procopius Abbey (Lisle), four monsignori and several priests of the Roman rite. Seven priests of the Greek rite were present. Fr. Sembratovich, pastor of a Ukrainian church in Detroit, preached the sermon. Fr. Werchovsky was buried among the priests in Resurrection Cemetery, Justice, Illinois--an artist, priest and father who died too young, but who left a living legacy in his children and in Saint Clement Church.