Art Center of Wilkes-Barre falls in creative lineage of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church
WILKES-BARRE — A shuttered Catholic church designed by a Renaissance man of a priest has reopened as an art gallery now owned by an artist once asked to work for the Vatican.
The Art Center of Wilkes-Barre held its first open house Nov. 20 at the former Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, 601 N. Main St. Its new owner, Ray Lapatinca, is a trained artist of 19th century romantic portraiture, and his works now hang on the same walls that once featured the paintings of the late Rev. Joseph Murgas, who presided over the church’s construction and congregation.
Lapatinca, a native of Kosovo, decided to buy the building after he was made aware of its availability during a visit with Cafe Toscana owner and friend Marcello Ameti, a visit during which he also met Kingston real estate developer Hysni “Sam” Syla and Mericle real estate broker Steve Barrouk.
“I saw the sign outside that said it was a historical landmark of Pennsylvania,” Lapatinca said. “I thought it would be beautiful to preserve it and turn it into a gallery.”
Lapatinca has an arts education that began at Pristina University in Kosovo and extended to a graduate degree at Montclair State University in New Jersey. He has been commissioned as a portrait artist and an educator at Bergen County Community College, but one of the most prestigious honors of his career came from the Catholic Church.
“In 2010, I had an invitation to visit the Vatican to examine and restore some oil paintings located in the San Lorenzo de Lucina and the Guardian Angel Church (Parrochia de Santi Angeli Custodi) in Rome,” Lapatinca said. “I received a letter of recognition of my talent and ability to do things like that … from P. Raffaele Mandolesi, Peposito Generale.”
Lapatinca said he was offered work at the Vatican but turned it down because he was not ready to move there.
Six years later, he’s found a home and a gallery in Wilkes-Barre, and the church he’s purchased has an artistic heritage.
A Times Leader article from 2011 explained how Murgas’ paintings bolstered the spirits of members of the congregation during a time when the Vatican was evaluating whether to close the church after a decision by then-Bishop Joseph Martino was appealed.
“The church’s founder, the late Rev. Joseph Murgas, was an accomplished artist,” the article said. “Two of his paintings adorn the church — one of the ‘Sacred Heart of Jesus’ that centers the altar and another of the ‘Immaculate Conception’ to the left.”
The article went on to detail how a third painting, “Christ in the Temple” was brought from the neighboring school to the church.
Murgas, who died in 1929, is credited for being a pioneer in the development of overland wireless telegraphy. The historical marker referred to by Lapatinca notes that Murgas’ first transmission of sound was made at the church on Nov. 23, 1905.
A Times Leader article from the day of the marker’s dedication, Nov. 25, 1990, said few people outside the church parish were “even aware that Murgas was an accomplished painter, botanist and designer of the church” much less that he made “monumental breakthroughs in the development of wireless telegraphy and radio.”
Lapatinca realizes the significance of the church for its beauty as well as its historical significance and he intends to preserve both, he said.
“I want to make it like a small museum, so everyone can enjoy it.”
Reach Matt Mattei at 570-991-6651 or Twitter @TLArts