Artist restores stoles from church ashes

When an arsonist broke into Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Little Rock in August, he ignited a fire that destroyed nearly everything in the Vestment Room, the place where liturgical vestments and other items are kept.

The criminal has never been identified.

The damage to office attire was extensive. Some objects escaped the flames, but the smoke spared nothing.

The fire, although quickly brought under control, was serious enough that the cathedral had to hold services temporarily in its gymnasium while the damage was repaired.

“The Dressing Room, Acolyte Room and Corridor all had to be completely redone due to smoke damage,” said cathedral spokesman Jack Dowling.

From an adjuster’s perspective, the vestments were a total loss.

But artist Lisa Thorpe examined the soot-stained objects and saw something salvageable. So she picked up the damaged items, brought them home, and cleaned them thoroughly.

Once dry, she cut out the less damaged sections and turned them into something completely new.

They include a chasuble (outer liturgical vestments that are worn like a poncho), two banners, and four stoles (strips of cloth draped over a priest’s shoulders).

Finding an artistic response to the fire was a challenge, Thorpe said.

“I really had a hard time at first trying to understand [how to use] this pile of fabric, how I was able to pull it together so it didn’t just look like a crazy hodgepodge,” she said.

She wanted it to “have some cohesiveness and be beautiful and meaningful, and I feel like I was able to achieve that,” she said.

Some of the clothes were newly made; others were handmade gifts; a few were “heritage vestments”, items that had existed since the cathedral’s beginnings.

Thorpe tried to salvage portions of each of them, even if it was only a small fragment.

“I wanted to at least make sure everything I was able to salvage was there somewhere,” she said.

Thorpe made the chasuble using new red silk. It functions, like a canvas, for the art itself.

She was happy with the end result.

“I’m really, really happy,” she said.

The brightly colored objects feature red phoenixes rising from the flames at one end and white doves descending from the sky at the other.

On Pentecost Sunday this week, the new clothes were worn during worship for the first time.

In the Gospels, the Holy Spirit descends like a dove. At Pentecost, as described in the book of Acts, the Spirit descends as “tongues of fire” which rest on every believer.

Amy Dafler Meaux, dean and rector of the cathedral, is amazed by the transformation carried out by Thorpe.

She lost, in the fire, a graduation cap and a handmade stole that had been an ordination gift.

Others lost far more, she said.

Now items will have a new life as part of banners and new liturgical outfits.

“They’re just amazing,” Meaux said, crediting the artist for raising the beauty from the ashes.

“The fire wasn’t pretty at all, and yet out came these clothes that to me really represent the potential of the Spirit working among us. I think they’re breathtaking and I think they capture a [notable] moment in the history of the cathedral,” she said.

After a fire damaged Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Little Rock, Lisa Thorpe, a mixed media fiber artist and educator, salvaged pieces of fire and smoke damaged liturgical vestments, using them to help create new stoles, banners and a chasuble. The objects were exhibited on Pentecost Sunday. (Courtesy picture)
Photo (Left to right) Under Dean Lisa Corry, Deacon Deb Cooper and Dean and Rector Amy Dafler Meaux retire from Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Little Rock on Sunday, June 5, 2022, followed by Bishop Larry Benfield. The phoenix and dove stoles were created by Little Rock artist Lisa Thorpe using the remains of church vestments destroyed by a fire in August. (Courtesy picture)
Photo Lisa Thorpe is a mixed media fiber artist and educator. (Courtesy picture)
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