Wine cellar a tribute to church's colorful, troubled past

BRAD HORN/Nevada Appeal Nick Nicosia explains the frescas in the cellar at St. Mary's in the Mountains Catholic Church during a media tour on Saturday morning.

BRAD HORN/Nevada Appeal Nick Nicosia explains the frescas in the cellar at St. Mary's in the Mountains Catholic Church during a media tour on Saturday morning.

With a new spin on the old adage, "when God gives you lemons, make lemonade," St. Mary in the Mountains Catholic Church in Virginia City has taken sour grapes and turned it into The Mad Monks Fine Wine Cellar.

The name is based on a two-year period of church history (1957-1959) when Cistercian Monks from Sparta, Wisc., took possession and wreaked havoc that the church is still trying to remedy.

The cellar and the adjacent collection of Comstock and church artifacts are open and free to the public.

Both came about rather serendipitously, according to church administrator Nick Nicosia.

"We had to find a way to pay the heating bill so we began looking around at what was stored in the basement (and adjacent tunnels) that we could sell," he said.

Going through the storage area under the church revealed a collection of items, many that had not been seen since the Great Fire of 1875, which leveled the better part of Virginia City and left only the church walls standing.

Now, the public can view these artifacts - among them a mint condition 1908 Thomas Edison phonograph, the first church-authorized reproduction oil painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe, furnishings made in Virginia, Nev., (as Virginia City was once called) and candelabra made of Comstock silver that had been hidden away since the Great Fire - while picking up any one of the wine selections offered.

"We decided we couldn't sell these artifacts because they belong to the community and to the parishioners," Nicosia said.

The wine comes to the Comstock by way of Madonna Vineyards in Napa, Calif., and the five varietals are sold under two labels - Mad Monks and St. Mary in the Mountains. Selections include two cabernets and two chardonnays - one on each label and a Mad Monks pinot noir. Prices range from $14.95 to $24.95 per bottle and are, according to Nicosia, they're "wines I would be proud to serve to any of my dearest friends or families."

The catacomb-like setting for the cellar has been transformed into a showcase for the bottles that stand in a 13th-century style riding rack built by Dick Burley.

Burley also constructed a display wall featuring hand-carved panels from the choir loft and 225-year-old stations of the cross. The once-whitewashed walls have been adorned with life-size paintings of Father (and later Bishop) Patrick Manogue, John Mackay and St. Patrick, among others instrumental and inspiring in the church's history.

A Mad Monk keeps watch over the wine and one wall, the V&T, has been captured as a remembrance to the train that ran 24 hours a day, seven days a week approximately 15 feet from where the church wall stands.

The frescos are the work of Virginia City artist Kitty Bonney-Boley, whose works can be seen throughout that town.

"At the close of my life, this will have been the one project that stands above the rest," Bonney-Boley said. "I got so much more out of it than I put into it."

The Mad Monks, during their stay at St. Mary, found the wood carvings and glass work created by the finest European craftsmen, to be too worldly and a distraction to prayer.

To simplify the church, they broke the Belgian stained-glass windows and removed the double staircase which rose from each side of the church to support the choir loft, structurally compromising the church.

Stop-gap measures have since been taken to keep the walls from collapsing. The structural changes, in addition to natural settling, has also caused the bell tower to list 8.5 degrees, Nicosia said, adding that while this is a problem that also needs to be addressed, it does underscore the ecumenical history of the church.

"The church was rebuilt within a year of the Great Fire and opened its doors for other churches and religious affiliations to meet," Nicosia said.

Therefore, the museum accepts items representative of all faiths, so long as they are spiritual, historic and have had a cultural impact.

Inside the church, visitors will find vestment robes of woven from spun gold thread and given by Queen Isabella of Spain to Bishop Manogue. A gift shop featuring one-of-a-kind works by local artists Liz Huntington, Delores and Wolf is also housed there.

"There are many things offered here that appeal to those who would not normally come to a church," Nicosia said, citing a letter that was received from an East Coast woman who had visited.

"In her letter, she commended the work that's been done and wanted us to know that she had appreciated it immensely, even though she was, as she said, an atheist."

• Contact Karel C. Ancona-Henry at kanconahenry@sierranevadamedia.com 246-4000.

You can help

In an effort to restore St. Mary in the Mountains, the church has applied for a Save America's Treasures grant, the only grant church administrator Nick Nicosia has been able to find that allows churches to receive government grant money for restoration.

To that end, the church needs $700,000 in pledges by March 15 to qualify for matching funds.

Nicosia said all pledges will be gratefully received.

"We have a rich history here in that St. Mary in the Mountains is not only the oldest church in the state, but the most photographed landmark as well," he said. "And she needs our help. Sens. (Harry) Reid and (John) Ensign has supported our efforts and we hope others will too"

To pledge money, contact Nicosia at the church at 847-9099.

Mad Monks Fine Wine Cellar

The church and gift shop are open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Wines can be purchased at the gift shop.

Hours of the museum and cellar are open most days dependent on volunteer coverage. For information or to arrange a tour, call the church at 847-9099.

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