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Walls of New York church get Byzantine makeover
Scenes from the life of Christ are painted near the ceiling. - photo by Associated Press

LACKAWANNA, N.Y. — The religious scenes playing out on the interior walls of St. Stephen Serbian Orthodox Church could have been painted centuries ago: Saints with gilded halos, winged angels hugging curved arches, calligraphic lettering helping to tell ancient stories.

But the paint is barely dry.

This brick sanctuary on a street busy with shopping and fast food was, on and off for more than six years, the canvas of the Rev. Theodore Jurewicz as he quietly practiced an art form that had its beginnings in the Roman Empire.

Paintbrush and palette in hand, the Serbian Orthodox priest filled virtually every square inch of interior wall and ceiling with icons, sacred paintings depicting the life of Christ and the angels and saints. There are hundreds of figures in the timeless Byzantine style, drawing the eye up, around and into nooks and crannies with vivid colors that pop from a slate blue backdrop. Even the thermostat and light switch plates have been transformed.

"I was always interested in holy pictures when I was a child. I used to scribble on paper and on the walls," Jurewicz said. "It just grew on me, I guess."

He has been doing this work for 40 years, often working on several Orthodox churches at a time, commuting from his Erie, Pa., church and spending a few weeks before again moving on.

"It’s nice," said the white-bearded Jurewicz, 63, who is matter-of-fact about his talent. "You come back rested. You see your mistakes and correct them."

St. Stephen Serbian Orthodox Church was completed just in time for the May 5 Easter celebration. The Rev. Rastko Trbuhovich, who has been there 28 years, said church leaders had casually talked about such a project for years before finally moving forward to raise funds for the $160,000 undertaking. One of Jurewicz’s mentors, a monk named Father Cyprian Pyzhov, had done some work in the Lackawanna church in the 1960s.

"We don’t worship icons, we honor them, we venerate them," Trbuhovich said. "We use them to communicate with the person in the icon. It helps us to see them.

"On other occasions to use icons, we would show pictures of traditional churches covered in icons," he said as walked through the nave, which he said represents the cosmos transformed. "Some people said this is the way our church should look."

A 16-by-16-foot icon of the face of Christ occupies the center of St. Stephen’s arched ceiling. Traditionally, it would go in the dome if a church has one. It was the first image to appear and made believers even out of those in the congregation of 350 to 400 people who had been reluctant toward change.

"That got everyone’s attention," Trbuhovich said, gazing up at the commanding figure.

Jurewicz used a scissor lift to reach the high points. "I’ve learned how to avoid accidents on scaffolding," he said, "to put things up so they don’t fall off. The process is very difficult at the beginning, but then it gets increasingly easy and more rewarding."