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Industry Man Finds Long-Lost Church Artifact

Fri January 16, 2009 - Northeast Edition
Mary Reed

It’s said that curiosity killed the cat, but exploration of a long undisturbed hayloft in the fall of 2007 led to a man with a flashlight looking, as he put it, at an artifact no one now alive had seen.

The man with the flashlight was Michael Eder, council president of the Zion Lutheran Evangelical Church in Old Zionsville, south of Allentown, Pa., and a product support representative of Ransome CAT, a full-line Caterpillar dealer based in Bensalem, Pa. The Zionsville resident also serves on the church’s Finance and Cemetery Committees and it was in connection with duties for the latter that the story began.

“In discussion at a cemetery meeting in September 2007, it was mentioned that no one knew of any key to fit an old padlock on a storage area above what is now the cemetery caretaker’s garage,” Eder recalled. “I am told the building had originally been used to house a horse and carriage and we use it now to store mowers, tools, rakes, shovels and so on.”

No one could recall having ever been up into the loft, Eder, who has a keen interest in history, collects old locks and keys from various sources such as prisons and railroads.

“I looked at the padlock,” he continued, “but it was way too rusted to open so we elected to cut it off. The caretaker, Danny Strunk, cut it off and put a new padlock on but no one wanted to go up to look around because you need a ladder, the door is small, and the room dark and dirty.”

As mentioned, Eder is interested in historical matters. His personal collection includes a rib from the Hindenburg given to him by a man who had witnessed the airship’s fiery end in 1937, a few pieces from World War II and older Germany, and a statue that is reportedly one of the original Maltese Falcons used in the classic movie. Naturally he was curious about the contents of the hayloft.

“I love that stuff and so I went up with a flashlight,” he said. “There was not really much up there, a few old wooden pews from when the church had a school many years ago.”

However, an amazing discovery awaited him.

In a corner he saw a rectangular object covered with debris — squirrels had obviously been quite at home up there — and he thought it might be an old wooden sign.

“As I tried to pick it up it started coming apart and I dragged it over to the doorway to get some light on it. I saw it was a wooden box in poor shape. Pulling up a corner of it I saw something wrapped in old newspaper, which turned out to be from Christmastime 1906.”

Eder and the caretaker put the box on the tailgate of the latter’s truck to examine the contents. The newsprint came apart as they unwrapped what turned out to be three pieces of artwork, dirty and damaged by animals, and with sections missing and small holes. “But,” said Eder, “the colors were very vibrant and beautiful and each of the pieces had writing at their foot in old German.

“It occurred to me that this was almost certainly stored in 1907 and for whatever reason forgotten about,” he went. “Now exactly 100 years later I was looking at something that no one alive has seen.”

While nobody in the congregation knew about the artwork, one of them recalled an old photograph in the church library showing the church interior at Christmas in the late l800s, in which the three pieces could be seen on the altar.

Eder crated the artifacts and took them to the Baum School of Art in Allentown, where they were identified as forming a triptych. Fortunately the lithographed work was on acid free paper, now no longer used, otherwise it would not have survived due to its age. When the possibility of repair or restoration was brought up the school’s Rudy Ackerman suggested consulting Dana Van Horn, an instructor at the school and an area artist who works with church art and restoration.

During 2008 the church celebrated its 250th anniversary with monthly events such as choir concerts, an open house and a dinner event. At the annual congregational meeting in January 2008, Eder displayed the artwork and suggested restoration of the triptych to mark the anniversary. He also proposed displaying the triptych on the altar as shown in the 1900 photograph as part of the celebrations. The congregation agreed and sufficient funds were voted to the project.

Dana Van Horn started on the task in February and completed its restoration by December. The triptych depicts the Nativity. Measuring 49 by 70 in., it is unusual in that it is intended to be displayed lit from the back, thus presenting a mellow glowing effect similar to sunlight streaming through a stained glass window.

Eder praised Van Horn for his work.

“The artwork restoration was much better and more beautiful than any of us anticipated,” he said. “Mr. Van Horn even went as far as restoring the framework and gold leafing it. A beautiful job. Everyone who has seen it has been very impressed.”

The church itself was founded in 1758 and in keeping with the heritage of the founding congregation, quotations in German appear at the foot of each of the three sections.

Rudi Trickle, a co-worker of Eder’s, sings in a German choir known as Musica Concordia and speaks fluent German. He translated the Old German script. The lines below the shepherds on the left read “I come and proclaim great joy,” the center panel is inscribed “For you today a Saviour is born!” and the right hand panel with the wise men declares “We have seen His Star and have come to worship Him.” However, it has not yet been possible to establish where the triptych came from, who made it, or why it was relegated to the hay loft and subsequently forgotten.

Eder is now working on his next historical project, which is to organize a Christmas Eve service as it would have been in 1910. This involves having those who are willing to do so dressing in period clothing, a candle lit service, and, he hopes, arranging for horses and carriages to be tethered outside the church.

“We will have music and songs from that era and season and conduct the service the way it would have been performed then,” he explained, adding there was insufficient time to make the necessary arrangements for this year so he will propose to the congregation they do this in 2010.

The triptych’s three sections are now protected by plastic panels serving both to enhance light shining through them as well as protecting the fragile artifact, which was unveiled after 100 years in obscurity at services held on Christmas Eve 2008, this time back lit by electricity rather than by candles.

(This story also can be found on Construction Equipment Guide’s Web site at CEG

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