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  • Writer's pictureDiocese of WNC

Fresco Docents Welcome Thousands Each Year

By Rachel Carr, Diocesan Missioner for Communications

The Parish of the Holy Communion is alive with creativity, with frescoes created by North Carolina artist Ben Long drawing tens of thousands of art-seeking pilgrims each year and many mediums representing Bible stories and figures throughout St. Mary’s and Holy Trinity.

The dutiful docents of the two-church parish minister to these visitors with joy, hoping that each person who looks upon the marvelous art takes with them something special.

Visitors take in "The Last Supper" on a Thursday afternoon at Holy Trinity as Senior Warden Paula Riggs stands by.

“Our churches are always open, and we are here as much as we can be,” said Fresco Ministry coordinator, Doug Worsham.

The Parish of the Holy Communion is a parish with two churches, Holy Trinity in Glendale Springs, where The Last Supper inhabits the altar wall, and St. Mary’s in West Jefferson, where frescoes Mary Great with Child, John the Baptist, and The Mystery of Faith have presence.

Mary Great with Child

A fresco is more than a painting. It’s a risky medium popular during the Italian Renaissance in which the artist transforms plaster with powdered pigments, putting watercolors into the material that makes up the wall itself. The colors become more vibrant as the material ages. Today, nearly fifty years after the frescoes were made, visitors can see that vibrance. Ben Long’s team created the Blue Ridge Mountain Frescoes with Carolina beach sand and aged lime imported from Florentine lime pits, some of the same lime used in Da Vinci’s frescoes.

Parish members are invited to sign up as docents for Fresco Ministry, meaning they are present in one of the churches to answer visitor’s questions, offer local knowledge about the area, and generally be a welcoming presence that represents Christ’s love. The docent on duty can tell visitor’s the story of the frescoes or play the recording prepared and set up at each location, which can be played at any time.

“We get letters and emails from people thanking us for keeping the churches open all the time. The docents ourselves have some very rewarding experiences in talking to the visitors who come in as well,” Worsham said.

One such experience was Worsham’s conversation with a man who told him that it was in Holy Trinity that he recommitted his life to the Lord ten years prior.

Colorful stepping stones adorn the walkway up to St. Mary's.

“He told me his life had been going downhill rapidly. He’d been doing all the things he shouldn’t have been doing, and he didn’t have much interest in life anymore. Then he visited Holy Trinity and saw The Last Supper and the empty stool and the words that went with it, and he has been doing well ever since,” Worsham said.

The empty stool in The Last Supper is described as a place for each one of us, an extension of God’s grace and the love of Jesus that welcomes us all to the table.

Indeed, the Fresco Ministry of Holy Communion is also one of evangelism.

“The ministry of the frescoes is a unique evangelical opportunity and works contrary to what we normally think of as evangelism. Instead of going out to the people to tell the love of Christ, people come to us. The frescoes become an instrument to tell the story, an echo of the use of icons in the early church,” wrote former Fresco Ministry coordinator, Shirley Long.

While the magnificent frescoes draw visitors, it is clear that what started with Ben Long’s frescoes in the late 1970s sparked more creativity in the mountain community. Both churches are filled with various mediums of art depicting biblical stories, nature, and sacred themes.

Fresco Ministry Coordinator Doug Worsham knows the details of each art piece.

Each one has its own story to tell, and the docents know them all by heart.

The undercroft of Holy Trinity, known as The Chapel of Christ the King, holds multiple art pieces created by community artists. Present among those are a grotto hewn out of the bedrock to house several unique urns, a columbarium, and fresco The Departure of Christ created by Ben Long’s student, Jeffrey Mimms. This fresco was painted as a memorial to a young girl in the congregation who died on the road near St. Mary’s.

“Being a part of this parish is life to me,” said Senior Warden Paula Riggs, who often serves as a docent. “I moved here from Florida after seeing the frescoes once, and I don’t know if it was the frescoes or if it was just the aura in St. Mary’s, but I knew that this was the place I wanted to go to church."

Each year, the Festival of the Frescoes is held at Holy Trinity on the second Saturday in October. It’s described as “an old-fashioned country fair,” with activities, food, vendors, and plenty of friendly fellowship.

“The frescoes are wonderful treasures that are an important part of our parish’s ministry of hospitality. We extend a warm invitation to all, particularly to folks from our diocese, to visit and experience the frescoes as guests and pilgrims,” said the Rev. Perry Hildreth, deacon-in-charge for the Parish of the Holy Communion.


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