Sunday, November 19, 2000


Vision Brought To Life in Church



When Scranton painter Robert Ritterbeck stepped inside St. John's Lutheran Church more than a year ago, the 114-year-old building ached with monochrome beige walls, corroded lights and a drab blue ceiling above the altar.

The congregation initially considered little more than a fresh coat of paint.

Today, the vision of Mr. Ritterbeck and Scranton architect Richard Leonori has turned St. John's into a work of art.

The $350,000 testament to Victorian Romanesque architecture, the quiet grace of a spiritual home -- and to local talent -- will be celebrated next Sunday with a morning service and a late-afternoon community celebration.

Mr. Ritterbeck is a master of the Renaissance technique of fooling the eye, and his tricks have created a heavenly atmosphere throughout the church, said the Rev. Albert C. Wagaman, the pastor.

From any vantage point, visitors' eyes are drawn upward.

With merely paint, Mr. Ritterbeck designed a ceiling of 10 panels that appear framed and three-dimensional.

Each panel depicts a Christian symbol based on the writings of St. John -- a rainbow, dove and olive branch; the tree of life; the ark of the church; loaves and fishes, and more.

He gave plaster molding the look of timber, stenciled and feather-brushed gold-leaf along the dome and on each side incorporated the Cross Trefflee, placing it slightly off-center and stretching it.

The effect, Pastor Wagaman said, "forces you to look up and contemplate the eternal significance of the crucifixion for all people."

The three-leaved ends of the cross add another aspect: the Christian belief in the Trinity.

Mr. Ritterbeck divided the area around the altar into serene images of heaven and earth, including a portrayal of the resurrected Lamb, a common theme in John the Apostle's Gospel. The ceiling, now a cerulean blue, is decorated by a myriad of soft gold stars.

Two original Tiffany windows mark both sides of the front of the church, one highlighted by an angel, the other by the tender scene of a woman and two children. Pastor Wagaman sees the second window as an allegory of the biblical psalm that says "mercy and peace have kissed."

Ecru-shaded paint applied by hand with rags softened the walls.

The congregation turned to Rambusch Studios in New York, considered premier experts in church lighting, to install indirect lights throughout the church.

Original Tiffany lights were cleaned and upgraded.

And under Mr. Leonori's direction, oak floors were refinished, stained poplar pews shifted slightly, wine-colored carpeting installed and air-conditioning added.

The effect has been so uplifting, Pastor Wagaman and renovations committee chairman Alan Graf marvel at the workers' craftsmanship and artistry.

Next Sunday, the St. John's congregation will celebrate the project's completion with a festive Eucharistic service at 11 a.m. The Rev. Kurt Garbe, associate of Northeastern Pennsylvania's Evangelical Lutheran Bishop David Strobel, will preach.

At 4 p.m. on the same day, a rededication service is scheduled as a community celebration. Bishop Strobel will be the preacher. The Cantare Choir of the Choral Society of Northeast Pennsylvania and St. John's Choir will provide the music.

A reception will follow.

Pastor Wagaman, president of the Central City Ministerium, said the Lutheran presence has been an integral part of Scranton since 1860. St. John's, acquired from a Presbyterian congregation in the late 1920, has long been a meeting place for local support and civic groups.

Its downtown location at Jefferson Avenue and Vine Street keeps it close to the city's hub.

A healthy church endowment fund, built up throughout the church's history, made the renovations and the community service possible, Mr. Graf said.

"It is the congregation's hope, demonstrated by the special community program Sunday, that the renovations will benefit not only the congregation but also the many other groups who use the building," Pastor Wagaman said.