“It really inspired my faith,” he said.
It was only years later that he discovered the real-life inspiration for those images came from right next door.
The parish of St. Joseph in River Canard, outside Windsor, is distinguished by being one of the few where the murals that grace the church feature the faces of people from the local community.
To celebrate both the church and its unique history, Bénéteau has published a book honouring the murals and using them as lectio divina prayers — biblical images for contemplation.
The book, Images of Faith: Portraits of a People, features the 17 recently restored murals, which were originally painted in the early 1950s by a team of husband and wife artists, Karol and Milada Malczyk.
Bénéteau, who celebrated his first Mass as a priest at St. Joseph in 2010 and is now director of vocations and seminarians at the Diocese of London, said he long had the idea of writing the book, “being inspired by the beauty but not really knowing the story behind the murals.”
The parish was in the process of restoring the murals — part of a wider church restoration — and the book serves in part as a fundraiser for the project.
The parish, with 1,100 families, dates from 1864 but the current church was built in 1912. In the 1950s, then pastor Msgr. Augustin Caron commissioned the artists to paint the church’s interior.
The Malczyks had painted churches in their native Poland and always used the same technique, having local people pose as religious subjects.
The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 led the Malczyks to flee to Hungary, eventually settling in Budapest after the war where the couple continued to design and paint church murals. In 1949, escaping the country’s post-war Communist regime, they moved to Canada. The couple eventually settled in the Detroit area.
While in Canada, they lived in Welland, where they were contracted by the pastor at St. Joseph to paint the murals for the church in the small River Canard community.
During the painting of the murals from 1950-52, the models for their paintings were easily found next door at St. Joseph elementary school. Those children are now in their 70s.
In putting together the book, which is bilingual because River Canard is an English and French community, Bénéteau was able to find all eight children — seven girls and one boy — who posed for the murals.
Bénéteau asked them to share their thoughts on what it was like to pose for the paintings. “I also asked the question, how did being part of this Bible scene inspire them in their own faith journey?”
Three of those women —Donna Bastien, Annette Simone and Leona Langlois — gathered recently with Bénéteau and Pastor Dewayne Adam to reminisce about the experience of working with the Malczyks.
Karol Malczyk painted the mural figures while his wife, Milada, painted the surrounding scenes. Karol would have the students pose for a photograph and then begin outlining the mural. A few days later he’d have the children climb up the scaffold and further pose as he fleshed out the details.
The three women are in one of the murals and Simone is in a second posing as the Blessed Virgin swaddling Jesus. “I was given a bunch of rags and I had to hold it like a baby and the rags smelled of Varsol,” she laughed.
She recalled the experience as “interesting and fun, but now it’s part of the history of this church.”
The Malczyks went on to paint murals at St. Joseph’s in Brantford, Ont., and at several churches across the river from Windsor in Detroit, where the couple had moved. Karol Malczyk died in Detroit in 1965 at age 58.
In his book, Bénéteau describes the biblical scenes in the church as “a testimony to Karol and Milada’s faith.”
“They were known for their love of painting angels, archangels and seraphim, which was most likely an expression of their life experiences, how the angels protected them in their flight to freedom,” he wrote.
Restoration work on the murals to repair cracks and crumbling paint began in 2015 as part of a larger church project, funded partly with proceeds from the book. The mural project cost $2.5 million of which $1.8 million has been raised to date.
The book also serves as a lectio divina prayer book. Bénéteau said the murals hark back to a time “before many people could read and write” and the church “transmitted the faith and catechized through stained glass windows, paintings, art and music.”
The book, priced at $40, is available from St. Joseph Parish by phoning 519-734-8044 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.