Volunteer Docents staff SPMMMV’s Saturday tours and also accommodate requests for private tours at other times. They come from diverse backgrounds and have unique connections to the murals. Docents tell the story of the murals from a personal perspective and are trained to comment on the history and themes represented in Vanka’s masterpiece.
Occupation: Field Service Technician at Opex
Affiliation: I have been connected to St Nicholas since birth. I attended the grade school for 8 years. I joined my wife’s church when we were married, but attend St Nicks for various family masses. We both feel close to this church, and will join this year.
First impressions: My first viewing of the murals was grade school. I thought they were scary and very bizarre.
I volunteer because: I was inspired after attending the first fund raiser 2 years ago. I was just blown away by the response to save the murals. I took them for granted most of my life, and realized I knew little about them.
I've been a volunteer for: 18 months
Favorite Mural: Immigrant Mother Raises Her Sons for Industry. I love the Diego Rivera influence. A very close second is the Croatian Family.
Memorable Moments? I enjoy the European visitors. A visiting artist from Belgium who was preparing to paint some murals in Europe stayed for a second tour and said there would be bus tours for this every week in Europe.
Preservation and Public Access? I don't think there is any other church in North America with as many murals. I doubt any church would allow these murals to be painted on their walls today. It is truly unique in the world.
Occupation: Retired Nurse
First Impressions? My first viewing was when my husband and I attended the "Gift To America" play. We were stunned by their beauty and their exploration of the timeless theme of man's inhumanity to man. Over the next few years, we brought friends and family to the tours and attended a fundraiser.
I am a volunteer because: The seed to volunteer was planted in my mind at the fundraiser. It took me awhile to become a volunteer docent; I was always telling myself that as soon as I finished my next project I was going to become a docent. Finally, I realized that there is always something else that needs to be done, so I sent an email offering to volunteer my time. I observed a very committed and informed docent for a few tours, read the books and watched the DVD. I then made up my outline for the tour from the informative materials I was given.
I have been a volunteer for: Less than a year. I really enjoy the opportunity to participate in the efforts to spread the word about the Vanka Murals.
Preservation and Public Access? I feel that the preservation of the murals is an important and worthwhile cause. The story of St. Nicholas Church, Maxo Vanka, and the origin of the murals is an inspiring tale that bears repeating and publicizing. I believe that if these were in a church in NYC, people would be lined up outside for tours. The anti-war themes and the suffering of the common people that are depicted in the murals are surprising to many, and endeared them to me. Themes in church decoration are often aimed at helping the viewer revel in the heavenly, leaving earthly suffering behind. The unique focus of the Vanka vision is noteworthy. That these murals are found in a humble Catholic Church, built by immigrants, is extraordinary. I feel that celebrating and sharing the Vanka murals is the duty of those of us who are aware. Visitors attending the tours are enthralled by the murals and their story, and find that the lessons of the Vanka murals can be applied to today.
Affiliation: I went to grade school at St. Nicks. I am an active parishioner.
First Impressions? I remember them as a child.
I volunteer because: People kept asking me about the murals and I got excited about sharing the information.
I've been volunteering for: 2 years
Favorite Mural(s): Mati 1941. There is so much in the mural.
Memorable Moments? The glow in the eyes of the visitors after the tour when they have a better understanding of the murals.
Preservation and Access: They are meant to be shared with others.
I am a volunteer because: Sharing the murals with public is an opportunity for me to provide missionary work to the Church through my Catholic Faith.
I've been a volunteer for: More than 5 years.
Favorite Mural(s): Mary Queen of Croatia
Preservation and Access: Not only are they impressive works of art by an artist I consider to be a great humanitarian, they also have very significant historical value not only for Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania but for immigrant life in the early 20th century in the United States of America.
Occupation: Retired Art Teacher
I volunteer because: The first time I saw the murals, I was overwhelmed and couldn't believe that such a treasure was hidden here in Pittsburgh - a truly amazing thing that makes the city unique. I had been thinking about looking for a volunteer position in the visual arts or a museum so when I found there was an opportunity to be a docent for the murals and help in preserving them, I felt I'd found a great place.
I've been volunteering for: Over a year.
Favorite Mural(s): Injustice - right now.
Preservation and Access: Although we can go to museums and galleries to see art, that was art designed to be displayed in a specific way. Here, the artist's expression flows out in organic way and we are almost enclosed in the paintings. That can't be replicated anywhere else and I believe it's important for us to experience it that way.
Occupation: Retired History Teacher, Brentwood High School
First Impressions: I was first impressed with the area and scope of the murals for a small church. The social significance and intensity expressed by the artist were impressive.
I volunteer because: When volunteers were needed, I had the time and interest to further explore each mural.
I've been volunteering for: About 6 years.
Favorite mural(s)? My two favorite murals are Injustice and Battlefield: Christ for the raw emotion and intense messages,
Memorable Moments? Two of the memorable experiences were helping while Mary Petrich gave a tour to Japanese visitors which was explained by a translator. Another was when a man from a Steel Workers group tour handed me a one-hundred dollar bill. When I asked him if it was for the whole group (which also made a contribution), he said "no, just me."
Preservation and Access? The murals are certainly a Pittsburgh treasure which started out as a priest's dream to decorate the church. The social, religious and artistic significance have made them much more.
Occupation: Social Worker
Affiliation: My paternal family is Croatian and St. Nicholas was my ancestral church. My siblings and I attended grade school at St. Nicholas as well.
First impressions? My earliest recollection of the murals goes back to 1st grade. We attended daily mass during grade school. I recall how very powerful and frightening they were to a young child. Sadly, the murals were never explained to the children who attended school at St. Nicholas. It was not until I attended the original performance of David Demarest’s play “Gift to America” in the early 1980s, that I learned how and why the murals came to be as well as their symbolism. I learned about the play quite by accident and was able to see the last performance which had a profound influence on so many levels. I’ve been a devotee ever since.
I volunteer because: Initially I was inspired to join the Society to learn as much as I could about the murals. As that happened, I enjoyed the opportunity to share it with visitors who were equally inquisitive and impressed. As time passed, I was increasingly inspired to share the story of Maxo Vanka.
I've been volunteering for: More than 20 years.
Favorite Mural(s): At some point in time, I believe they have all enjoyed favorite status for various reasons. The iconic image of the Mother and Child, above the main altar, speaks to me on so many levels – personally, spiritually and artistically. She is my North Star and my anchor.
Memorable Moments? I never tire of visitors' reactions. I especially enjoy how the murals inspire visitors to connect with their family’s immigrant past.
Preservation and Access? The Pittsburgh region has a unique and powerful story to tell about the rise of industry in turn of the century America. The murals must remain as a reminder and a tribute to the people who built this region and this country.
Affiliation: I recently discovered that the Mexican-American side of my family actually emigrated from Istria, Croatia. Five sailor brothers jumped in a boat, waved goodbye to their mother, and wound up founding Port Isabel in South Texas. They even opened up a post office there so they could write to their mother. Such good boys!
While they came to the U.S. many generations before Maxo Vanka, their reasons for leaving were the same. And like the Croatian immigrants in the murals, they were sustained by their Catholic faith as they forged new lives. I think of my ancestors every time I look at Pastoral Croatia and Croatians in America.
First impressions: I noticed a billboard for the murals and scheduled a tour for the following Saturday, not knowing what to expect. I was the only person signed up for that tour, so it was just Buzz and me. I was blown away by the beauty, the scale, and the cultural and spiritual meaning. I knew right away, I’d have to come back.
I volunteer because: I guess you could say I'm lucky. I get to spend time with the murals and learn more about them from the other docents. I’m happy to play a part in their preservation and in raising public awareness.
I've been volunteering for: I decided to volunteer about six months ago, but I’m just now gearing up to give tours on my own.
Favorite Mural(s): Vanka’s scenes are grounded in a very specific, immigrant experience from a particular time and place. And yet they are rich with such universal meaning. I think Immigrant Mother Raises Her Sons for Industry is a great example of this.
Memorable Moment?: I gave a mini tour to a man who grew up one parish over. He’d visited St. Nicholas many times as a kid, but moved away and hadn’t returned to the church in years. Because of the restoration and new lighting, he felt like he was seeing them for the first time. At one point, he sat down in a pew and said, “Wow. I can’t believe this was always there!” That was pretty great.
Occupation: Managing Partner, Empty Space Holdings
Affiliation: Board Member, SPMMMV
I volunteer because: My wife introduced me to the murals some years ago and Mary Petrich gave me my first tour. I was just blown away by both the stories and their depth but also the symbolism. I really though it was a smorgasbord of art history and catholic symbolism.
I have been captivated by the sentiment that the murals are " the Sistine Chapel of Millvale." If you lived near the Sistine Chapel wouldn't you tell somebody about them? I am compelled to share their beauty among the murals many breathtaking aspects.
I've been volunteering for: More than 3 years.
Favorite Mural(s): Transcendent Vision (ceiling)
Memorable Moments? A few stand out, my very first tour with Mary Petrich who expressed the warmth and joy that the murals with their messages of sacrifice and grief and hope and redemption safe guarded in the Parish had inspired here over the last 75 years. I enjoyed an enlightening visit with the Croatian Ambassador, and finally, a young visitor who asked "who is that on the cross?"
Preservation and Public Access? Everyone should know about the stories being told in the murals, so spreading the word may take a a little bit of time to get everyone to come visit and experience the Murals of Maxo Vanka.