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St. Mary Church in Helena displays the early talent of architect Charles Eames and his simplicity and use of symbolism of the sun, moon and stars and simple geometry. Andrew Raimist, Facade, St. Mary Church, Helena. Andrew Raimist, The mural behind the altar at St. Mary Church in Helena was damaged after being covered by heavy velvet curtains for over 30 years until parishioners restored it. © Eames Office, LLC. All rights reserved. Exterior view, St. Mary Church, Paragould. Andrew Raimist,
 Sanctuary, St. Mary Church, Paragould. Andrew Raimist, Elaborate stained glass at St. Mary Church in Paragould shows Eames's creativity with a smaller budget. Andrew Raimist, Fish and Loaves, St. Mary Church, Paragould. Andrew Raimist, Charles Eames attended the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., in 1938, setting the foundation for his architectural career. © Eames Office, LLC. All rights reserved. Charles Eames and his second wife, Ray, married in 1941 and spent the next three decades making significant contributions to fine arts and architectural design. © Eames Office, LLC. All rights reserved.

Architect honors Eames, designer of 2 Arkansas parishes

St. Louis man designed St. Mary churches in Helena, Paragould before launching career

Published: December 18, 2023      
Andrew Raimist,
Exterior view, St. Mary Church, Paragould

While it is easy to admire the beauty of historic Catholic churches across Arkansas, the architects and contractors who designed and built them are often overlooked. 

For professional architect and educator Andrew Raimist, the ecclesiastical designs of architect Charles Eames hold great significance. 

Eames, a St. Louis architect who lived from 1907-1978, is often known for his mid-20th-century iconic designs that he created alongside his second wife, Bernice Alexandra “Ray” Kaiser. The two created notable toys, textiles and furniture, such as the fiberglass shell chair and the lounge chair and ottoman. But his lesser-known earlier career, during which he built St. Mary Church in Helena and St. Mary Church in Paragould with his business partner Ray Walsh, is what Raimist hopes to educate others about.   

Raimist, also from St. Louis, is currently writing a biography on Eames titled “Becoming Charles Eames.” Raimist delivered a lecture in the auditorium of the St. Louis Public Library’s Central Branch Nov. 29 about the life and work of Eames titled "Charles Eames’s Ecclesiastical Work: 1932 to 1936.”

“When you look at many books (about Eames) that have press releases or flyers, they mention hardly anything about this part of his life except the church in Helena,” Raimist said. “The church in Helena was the key thing that got him noticed.”

Raimist said the ecclesiastical portion of Eames’ career allowed him to shape his architectural signatures and styles that would later become the center of his designs. In all, Eames designed four churches in two states. 

“The context of the entire building may follow the traditional form, but when we look at the details of the furniture, the light fixtures, the carvings, the pews, the altars, we see flashes of Eames' inspiration in geometry and color and form that resonate throughout his career,” Raimist said in his lecture at the St. Louis Public Library Nov. 28. “All of these works were produced during the Great Depression. … There were many times when Eames struggled, just as any other architect or artist trying to do work that they believe in. He had times where he had no work and struggled to pay bills.”

Eames designed the four churches in the 1930s, including St. Mary Church in Helena and St. Mary Church in Paragould.


St. Mary Church in Helena

St. Mary Church in Helena was designed and constructed from 1934 to 1936. Father Thomas J. Martin, who would be buried at the corner of the church, considered the church the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.

“The church in Helena was probably like a godsend,” Raimist said, because when Eames returned to his old firm to rejoin it, he discovered that the firm had been dissolved due to lack of work. 

The exterior of the church in Helena is large with simple brickwork and intricate designs in the bricking. A white statue of the Virgin Mary and the child Jesus, done by the St. Louis architect Caroline Risque Janis, is located above the doorway, situated above a blue and white stone mosaic. 

The mural behind the altar, however, was controversial for decades. The brightly colored mural painted by Charles Quest depicts Jesus on the cross with God supporting the arms of the cross. Beneath the crucified Christ stand the prophets of the Old Testament, with two angels flanking Jesus and God. Around God’s head is a circle with a triangle inside, surrounded by lightning bolts. 

“I’m guessing the plan was originally to do these figures in mosaics behind the altar on the wall, but I think it was just too expensive,” Raimist said. “So they decided to do it as a mural and have it painted to follow the style of Byzantine mosaic representations.”

However, parishioners didn’t like the mural. When Father Martin died in 1939, the congregation contemplated the mural’s fate. 

“Some people felt that it was perhaps sacrilegious, because there is symbolism that is maybe not the standard Catholic symbolism,” Raimist said.

The congregation decided to cover the mural with heavy velvet drapes for more than 30 years. In the 1970s, as parishioners began to make repairs and minor renovations, the drapes were removed to reveal that the mural had been badly damaged by mold and mildew. 

Ultimately, a local art historian tracked down Quest and explained the situation to him. In his last will and testament, he gave the parish the funds to restore the mural to its original design. The parish did, and the mural can still be seen behind the altar today. 


St. Mary Church in Paragould

St. Mary Church in Paragould was designed and constructed from 1935 to 1936. 

“The Paragould church is smaller,” Raimist said. “It’s a smaller town, and I think it’s more oriented to that city. I’m assuming the people in Paragould heard about the church being built in Helena and wanted a structure like that.”

A similar church was designed but scaled down to fit a smaller community and a smaller budget. Raimist said. “I especially love the stained glass there. It’s very simple and abstract.”

During construction, children from St. Mary School would go down to the brickyard and carry bricks up to the school to save money. 

“I think that formed an incredible bond with the families and the community, so people really felt like ‘This is our church.’”

For Raimist, the designs in these two particular churches helped Eames hone his innovation and master detail work for his more recognizable career. 

“There are whole groups of people who collect and focus on all of these Eames things,” Raimist said. “And I’m trying to shed light on this earlier period of his life. I decided to photograph all of the houses and churches that he worked on, and I just felt like the churches are something that doesn’t fit with the typical stories that people tell about Charles Eames. He’s known as this modern designer, but the hints of his later simplicity of things he loved, using symbolism of the sun and moon and stars and simple geometry — you can see those designs and details in these churches.” 

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