R5 Mysterious Master

The first parish established in Yonkers, St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, is no stranger to historic artifacts. It was built in 1892. The massive organ, which takes up an entire balcony, was installed in 1906. But recently, the church unearthed something much, much older.

It all began when St. Mary’s Monsignor Corrigan was appointed temporary administrator of Our Lady of the Rosary Parish, a nearby church that was closing down. Hidden away inside a confessional booth was a dingy painting of St. Joseph and the child Jesus. “It was deep in a niche,” Monsignor Corrigan says. “Not many people saw it there.” Still, his interest was piqued. The subject matter was unusual: St. Joseph and Jesus are dressed like royalty, wearing ornate robes woven with silver, jade, rubies, and other treasures, and the painting seemed to be made with skill. The Monsignor called a major New York City appraiser but was told that it wasn’t anything special.

Undeterred, he decided to call on Dr. Marcus Burke, curator of paintings for the Hispanic Society of America. “He said, ‘My goodness! I think you have something from a master painter,’” Monsignor Corrigan recalls. Burke took a flashlight to the bottom of the painting to reveal the first real clue of its beginnings, the date: 1650. Location: probably Spain. Artist: there was no way to tell.

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Monsignor Corrigan hired Helmut Zitzwitz of the Hudson Valley Gallery and Conservators in Yonkers to restore it. “When he started to work on the painting, parts that looked like they should be gold started to turn into silver,” he says. “That made me very nervous. I said a prayer. But when I saw it restored, it was totally spectacular.” Zitzwitz estimates that, unlike the first appraisal, the painting is something truly special.

The restored painting took its rightful place in a (now well-lit) niche at St. Mary’s on the Feast of St. Joseph. But how in the world did a master painting from 1650 find its way to a congregation in Yonkers? That still remains a mystery.

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