Artist restores stoles from ashes after arson at Little Rock's Trinity Episcopal Cathedral

Lisa Thorpe thoroughly washed fire-damaged items that were taken from Trinity Episcopal Church in Little Rock in August, later hanging them on a clothesline to dry. Some of the fabric was salvageable and she used it to create new items that were worn, this week, for the first time. (Courtesy photo)

When an arsonist broke into Little Rock's Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in August, he set a fire that ruined nearly everything in the vesting room, the place where liturgical garments and other items are kept.

The criminal was never identified.

The damage to the clerical garb was extensive. Some items escaped the flames, but the smoke spared nothing.

The blaze, though quickly contained, was bad enough that the cathedral had to hold services, temporarily, in its gymnasium, while the damage was repaired.

"The vesting room and the acolytes' room and the hallway all had to be completely redone because of the smoke damage," said cathedral spokesman Jack Dowling.

From an insurance adjuster's perspective, the priestly apparel was a total loss.

But artist Lisa Thorpe surveyed the soot-stained items and saw something salvageable so she scooped up damaged items, took them home and gave them a thorough cleaning.

Once they had dried, she cut out the least-damaged sections and transformed them into something completely new.

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

Coming up with an artistic answer to the fire was a challenge, Thorpe said.

"I really struggled at the beginning to try and figure out [how to use] this pile of fabric, how I could bring it together so it didn't just look ... like a crazy mishmash," 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 vestments were newly made; others were hand-made gifts; a few were "heritage vestments," items that had been around since the early days of the cathedral.

Thorpe tried to save portions from all of them, even if it was just a tiny fragment.

"I wanted to at least make sure everything that I was able to salvage was in there somewhere," she said.

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

She was satisfied with the final result.

"I am really very pleased," she said.

The brightly colored items feature red phoenixes arising from the flames at one end and white doves descending from the heavens on the other.

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

In the Gospels, the Holy Spirit descends like a dove. On Pentecost, as described in the book of Acts, the Spirit comes down like "tongues of fire" which rest upon each believer.

Amy Dafler Meaux, the cathedral's dean and rector, is amazed by the transformation Thorpe has wrought.

She lost, in the fire, a graduation hood and a hand-made stole that had been an ordination gift.

Others lost a lot more, she said.

Now, the items will have new life as part of the banners and new liturgical garb.

"They're just incredible," Meaux said, crediting the artist with bringing beauty out of ashes.

"The fire wasn't beautiful in any way, and yet out of it has come these vestments that, to me, truly represent the potential of the Spirit working among us. I think they're stunning and I think they capture a [notable] moment in the history of the cathedral," she said.

  photo  After fire damaged Little Rock’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Lisa Thorpe, a mixed media fiber artist and educator, salvaged bits and pieces of fire-and-smoke-damaged liturgical garments, using them to help create new stoles, banners and a chasuble. The items were on display on Pentecost Sunday. (Courtesy photo)

  photo  (Left to right) Sub-Dean Lisa Corry, Deacon Deb Cooper and Dean and Rector Amy Dafler Meaux recess out of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Little Rock Sunday, June 5, 2022, trailed by Bishop Larry Benfield. The stoles featuring phoenixes and doves were created by Little Rock artist Lisa Thorpe using the remnants of church garments destroyed by fire in August. (Courtesy photo)

  photo  Lisa Thorpe is a mixed media fiber artist and educator. (Courtesy photo)