KEARNEY — Worshipers who enter St. George’s Orthodox Church at 1505 Avenue G find their eyes drawn toward heaven. High on the walls that curve up to the ceiling, 16 large icons depict scenes from the lives of Jesus and Mary.
Icon is the Greek word for image, and Orthodox believers say icons are a window into heaven. “Icons are the Gospel in color. They inspire us,” Father Christopher Morris said. “It’s the illustrated story of our salvation.”
Those 16 icons were installed nearly three years ago, and the church hopes to install more before Oct. 29, 2018, when it will celebrate the centennial of the passing of its first priest, Father Nicola Yanney, who died during the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918. He is the father of E. K. Yanney for whom, with his wife Mary, Yanney Heritage Park is named.
“In preparation for the centennial, we’ve been beautifying the church,” Father Christopher said.
Icons have beautified the interior of the 95-year-old church for decades, but five years ago, parishioners began raising funds to install more. Many people made gifts in memory or in honor of a loved one. Each icon costs $7,000, or $112,000 for all 16.
To do the work, the church hired Dmitry Shkolnik, a renowned Moscow-born iconographer who immigrated to the U.S. in 1981. A committee had seen his work in other churches and was deeply impressed.
“He’s one of the best iconographers I’d ever seen,” Father Christopher said. “His work is traditional, but he has a wonderful use of color. Some icons can be severe, but his asceticism and softness set him apart. He was the only one we considered.”
Shkolnik flew to Kearney for a 24-hour visit to see the church and take measurements. Then he returned to San Francisco, where he painted 16 icons, each measuring six feet by nine feet, on canvasses in his studio. He folded them up, wrapped them in a single tube, stuck them in a suitcase and sent them to Kearney via UPS.
Morris was worried about them arriving intact, but “as long as they’re not folded up for more than 24 hours, they’ll be OK,” Shkolnik assured him. Indeed, they were.
Shkolnik, then 54, came to Kearney, too, along with his assistant Aleko Mchedlishvili. With the help of parishioners Mike and Darlene Liakos, they spent just 10 days hanging the icons. Adhesive was trowled onto the area where each icon was to be mounted. Then the…