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Keeping Czech History Alive in Spillville
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Keeping Czech History Alive in Spillville

Thousands of people from around the world tour one of the oldest Czech churches in America each year, St. Wenceslaus Church in Spillville. They are enchanted by the beautiful stone church and it's history. Within the walls are historical statues, and thanks to volunteer artist Becky Kuhn who helped find and restore them.

What began as an act of charity for her parish more than 30 years ago blossomed into an artistic hobby of painting statues for Becky Kuhn of rural Ft. Atkinson.

It all started when the statues at St. Wenceslaus Church in Spillville needed repainting, and Amy Balik recruited Becky and a few other ladies to learn how to paint and stain the statues. Becky’s husband, Richie, got involved by fixing the broken statues.

Self taught, Becky read up on acrylic painting, the art of painting statues and soon discovered that she had the steady hand for the detail work and enjoyed her new talent. Amy Balik taught her how to stain the statues. The work was tedious and it took the ladies from 1983 to 1985 to finish the major project, working on it when they could. Women involved in the project were Becky, Amy Balik, Hattie Hauber, Marcella Hauber, Marie G. Balik, and Anna Mae Kuhn.

In 1986 they found a set of 20 Nativity Statues that Richie repaired and Becky, Anna Mae Kuhn, Hattie Hauber, Jenae Kuhn, and Brenda Timp repainted. The Catholic Workmen built the manger and stable.

In 1989 four Evangelists that are around the pulpit at St. Wenceslaus Church was found in the insulation in the attic of the rectory there. They were missing since the 1950’s when many statues were taken out and the church had been “modernized.” In the 1980’s the church was revitalized again, but this time put back to the original state and it was hard to find the statues that once was on the altars. One was even found in a granary, others people took home; one had to be bought back from someone, some had been accidently broken and buried in the cemetery. Becky is hoping to one day discover where St. Barbara ended up and would love to have her back in church.

Richie and Becky also helped redo the Grotto outside of church, fixed the Blessed Mother and Saint Bernadette during this time.

It didn’t take long for other parishes to find out about Becky’s talent and in 1992 she did statues for St. Clement’s Church outside of Spillville, and in 1994 The Smallest Church, St. Anthony of Padua, requested her services.

More examples of her work are seen all over Iowa. At the time of the repainting of the statues at St. Wenceslaus, Father Benda was the priest there and after he took over St. Mary’s Parish in Chelsea and Vining, Iowa he asked Becky to redo the statues there.

The Risen Christ at St. Aloysius Church in Calmar was also done by Becky and Richie Kuhn. Many times at Easter it’s been admired, but few know the whole story of the statue that has one arm held up in triumph of Jesus rising from the dead. The statue’s arm that is raised up was broken and needed a whole new arm. Richie had to develop his own cast by looking at the other hand and made a mold for it before Becky could begin repainting and staining the whole statue.

Some of the other projects include Protivin’s cemetery--in memory of William Kovarik a statue stands that was redone by Becky. In a small chapel in the Little Turkey cemetery a poor angel had a broken wing and husband Richie repaired it and Becky repainted and restained the angel back to its glory.

Recently, St. Wenceslaus Church was repainted inside over the winter; it was the perfect time for Becky to work her magic again. Jim Balik volunteered his building for the statues to be cleaned and some needed touch ups. Unfortunately, some where damaged in transit because the statues are more fragile than people think, and a few of the Stations of the Cross were broken.

After about 25 years, some of the statues were moldy and indeed needed a good cleaning. With the help of Bill Wermer’s bright lights, Becky was able to do the fine detail work that some of the statues needed done. One statue needed a whole face repainted, but otherwise Becky said it is hard to do major touch ups without redoing the whole statue. Becky has put in many hours volunteering her time to her parish but she says, “I love to do this, the hours pass by quickly before I realize I should stop and take a break.”

Using mild detergent and water Becky carefully goes over each statue, if any repairs need to be done that is the next step. Then Becky gives the statues two coats of paint, and then uses a special stain (which is hard to come by because of government regulations for less toxic ingredients). The next process is to spray a sealer on it twice with a matte finish. The last step is to gold leaf the statue. Most of her supplies come from art studios that have certain supplies that the general stores do not provide.

All that is left to accomplish at St. Wenceslaus is some of the 14 Stations of the Cross. They will be put back up in church as each one is finished. Becky is doing the stations at home with the help of her daughter, Jenae Kuennen of West Union, and sister-in-law Rita Fjelstul of Calmar.

When the next 25 years rolls around Becky wants to make sure someone else knows how to repaint the statues and that is why she is very happy her daughter is involved in this project with her.

Many thanks go out to the Kuhn’s for preserving the heritage of such a well known historic icon of Northeast Iowa for many more people can come to tour a little slice of paradise and learn of our Czech history.

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