From the outside, it’s a simple brick building, a place you might drive quickly by on bustling Abbott Road.
Among Lackawanna churches, others cast far bigger shadows.
Our Lady of Victory Basilica, for instance, rises nearby above the Southtowns skyline, a towering homage in stone and marble.
And yet, walking into St. Stephen Serbian Orthodox Church on Weber Road in this gritty industrial city feels like entering another century.
Or, perhaps, stepping into the most ornate and intricate of jewel boxes.
“It was kind of plain,” joked the Rev. Rastko Trbuhovich, the parish priest at St. Stephen’s, “before Father Theodore.”
This week marks the end of a sweeping six-year quest by the Rev. Theodore Jurewicz to fill the building with striking religious art.
It has been a labor of love, sweat and imagination. And it has not been easy.
The icons and scenes Jurewicz painted cover all the ceiling of the 1950s-era structure, which seats 180. They adorn all the walls.
They bedeck, too, the hidden spaces behind doors and around windows, and even incorporate fixtures such as lights, hardware and heating elements.
“The idea is to cover every inch of the walls and ceiling,” said Jurewicz, an artist and Serbian Orthodox priest who has commuted to Lackawanna regularly from Pennsylvania to complete the project.
“Beauty brings the soul into contemplation of the divine,” Jurewicz said.
The unveiling of the completed artwork is especially meaningful during the springtime season – which, in this orthodox rite church, will include Easter services in early May.
The project has been fully paid for out of donations from the congregation, Trbuhovich said. It cost about $160,000, all told, he said.
For Jurewicz, 63, working in acrylics and in paint-splattered clothes, with a few of his own children at his side at times, the project has also required another investment:
Prayer, coupled with patience.
“We pray,” Jurewicz said of how the work gets done. “I try to, at least.”
“It’s a given you have to pray – at least a little.”
The new paintings inside the church, which was founded in 1917, are arranged according to a plan that is religious as well as artistic.
At the top part of the ceiling, a large central image of Christ takes prominent place. It is Christ as “Pantocrator,” or Almighty, said Jurewicz.
In this view of Christ, an image frequently found in Orthodox art, the figure of Christ is depicted as an all-powerful figure and also as a teacher.
In the image Jurewicz painted, the Christ Pantocrator is portrayed in a traditional way, holding the Gospels in his left hand and giving a blessing with his right hand.
“It means ‘Almighty,’ ” Jurewicz said. “It’s actually Christ ascending into heaven, looking down on those who are worshipping him, telling us he will never leave us. That he’s with us till the end of time.”
“Usually,” Jurewicz added, “in most Orthodox churches, that image is in the dome. This church is different, there is no dome.”
On other parts of the ceiling and the higher portions of the walls are scenes from the life of Christ, including the Crucifixion and the raising of Lazarus from the dead.
Then, beneath those Christ-focused images, are scenes of the apostles, and of the lives of various saints – including St. Nicholas, a favorite in the Orthodox church, and St. Stephen, the early Christian martyr for whom the Lackawanna church is named. There are also scenes of the life of St. Sava, a Serbian saint.
When it comes to the arrangement of the images, they are ranked in hierarchical order, the priests said.
“There is an established pattern that goes back to the early Middle Ages,” Trbuhovich said. “You always have the feasts, the important events, you always have the saints.”
“Always, the Pantocrator is on the highest point in the church,” he said. “Always the great events of the life of Christ are at the higher points.”
Jurewicz said that his favorite image in the church is one that many people might not notice.
It is a wall panel of St. Michael the Archangel, in the foyer of the church, and largely obscured by a door that opens directly in front of it.
“It’s St. Michael the Archangel on a horse,” Jurewicz said. “It’s unusual. He has a red face. He looks apocalyptic. You don’t see that very often.”
Jurewicz, who has a family of 10 children, including a few who helped him with some of the painting in Lackawanna, said that – following iconographic traditions – he did not sign the images in the church.
The most he did, he said, was put a very small, discreet number somewhere along the edges of some of the pictures.
It was the date on which he finished those panels, he said.
Jurewicz gives a dismissive wave when it is suggested to him that his skills are, all things considered, rare. There are others who do what he does, the Erie artist responds.
But not many.
In an era of digital this and virtual that, painting for years on segments of plasterwork – with tiny brushes, using special techniques to make the paintings look like classical icons that have been admired and venerated for centuries – is a nearly vanished art.
“You take some dark-colored paint, like dark umber or black, and you start outlining,” Jurewicz said at one point, explaining how he achieves a look that blends the modern with the timeless.
“That’s what makes it look like an icon.”
For Jurewicz, this art is a skill he has been honing for years. As a younger religious, he studied under another Serbian Orthodox artist, a monk named Father Cyprian Pyzhov. Some of Pyzhov’s 1960s-era work may be found in the Lackawanna church that Jurewicz just completed.
The current church building was consecrated in 1959, Trbuhovich said.
The connection of his mentor to the Lackawanna church – a church where Pyzhov painted a large ceiling image of the Mother of God, as well as wood screen panels showing saints and apostles – is even more significant for Jurewicz.
He said he followed age-old iconographic techniques, in working on his paintings, in which darker colors are applied first, including blue backgrounds. Then Jurewicz did the gilding work on each scene or figure; then, light colors.
“It’s like sculpting,” Jurewicz said. “It has a significance as well: from darkness to light.”
The Lackawanna congregation couldn’t be happier with the look and feel of the images, said Trbuhovich, who has lived in the Buffalo area and been parish priest at St. Stephen’s for 28 years.
“With all the images, it looks as if there is light coming out,” Trbuhovich said. “That has spiritual significance as well.”
The timing of the work’s completion couldn’t be better for the Lackawanna parish, which numbers about 350 to 400 households, according to Trbuhovich.
The Serbian Orthodox Church was originally a part of the Roman Catholic Church. The Orthodox group separated from the Catholic Church in 1054, the priests said.
Easter for the Serbian Orthodox congregation will be celebrated on May 5.
For those looking to see the artwork themselves, Trbuhovich said visitors to the church are always welcome.
The church is not typically open on weekdays, but people can contact the church to arrange a visit, he said.
Services are 10 a.m. Sundays and anyone is welcome to view the artwork at that time, Trbuhovich said. A Saturday vespers service is also held.