Three Vined Mice


 

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Chancel Choir Stall Mice 

Clockwise from top left Shadyside Presbyterian, Heinz Chapel, East Liberty Presbyterian

We often hear the expressions, “poor as a church mouse” or “quiet as a church mouse.”  In the 1930s, in Pittsburgh’s East End , it might have been “ubiquitous as a church mouse.”  Between 1935 and 1938, East Liberty Presbyterian and Heinz Chapel were built and Shadyside Presbyterian underwent a major remodeling.  In the chancels of each, we find remarkably similar carvings in wood of mice.

Choir Modesty Screens Heinz Chapel (l), Shadyside Presbyterian (r)

Surrounding each mouse are carvings of vines.  In Christian symbolism, the vine represents the connection of Christ to the Church.  In John 15:5, Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches.”  The way a vine continually grows and envelopes its environment speaks of the Church’s mission carry the Gospel of Christ to the world. 

 

"Creation Carvings"  Shadyside (top), Heinz Chapel (bottom)

If the vine is symbolic, we might expect the mouse to be so also.  At Shadyside and Heinz Chapel, the mice are among a wide variety of animals carved on the modesty screens for the choir stalls.  As a group, the animals may be representative of God’s Creation.  This would mesh nicely with the metaphor of Church as vine.  Shadyside’s mouse holds a more prominent place, in that it is repeated at each side of each panel in the screen.  The Heinz mouse is one creature among many.

 

  Calvin the Mouse at East Liberty Presbyterian Church (above organ console)

Are these mice kin?  Each church has a different architect:  Ralph Adams Cram (the master late gothicist) for East Liberty, Charles Z. Klauder (who also designed the Cathedral of Learning) for Heinz Chapel and Philadelphia’s Wilson Eyre for Shadyside.  Letters in our archives from Shadyside member Miss Elizabeth Macfarlane tie the latter two.  During our 1938 remodeling, she was surprised to encounter her cousin, Charles Marcus Osborn, at the church.  Her letter explains he was in Pittsburgh to design the chancel furnishings at Shadyside and Heinz Chapel.  Howard Heinz was an influential donor to both projects.  This explains the overall similarity of the two choir screens.

Is there a link to East Liberty’s 1935 chancel?  Perhaps.  Miss Macfarlane’s letter notes that she was unsure who engaged Osborn for the work here and on the Pitt campus.  However, she remembers that previously Cram employed her cousin.  Whether his tenure there included work on East Liberty has not been established.  At East Liberty Presbyterian, mice appear in two locations:  at the ends of the choir stalls and in a carved frieze above the organ console.  Similarities in carved figures in each chancel bolster the evidence for a single source.  (Notice proportionally large hands of figures holding scrolls.)  While carved mice and angels are not uncommon ecclesiastical decorations, Charles Marcus Osborn might be the common ancestor for those at three Pittsburgh churches.

Carved Figures at Shadyside, Heinz Chapel & East Liberty

The prominent use of carved wooden church mice appears to be a relatively recent tradition.  Certainly, they can be found in medieval structures.  Romanesque and gothic stone masons and wood carvers were given wide latitude in choosing subjects for their sculpture – and often they had no religious meaning.  However, mice started showing up frequently in churches during the early twentieth century in England.

Robert Thompson (1876 – 1955) of Yorkshire was a carver of church and domestic furnishings in England.  By 1919, he had started his own business.  While working on a wooden church screen, one of his craftsmen remarked, “We are all as poor a church mice.”  Whereupon, Thompson carved a mouse into the screen.  It became (and remains) the signature of his firm and he became known as the Mouseman of Kilburn.  Many English churches boast a Thompson mouse.  Until today, every item of furniture produced by the firm features a carved mouse.

 

From Robert Thompson's Craftsmen Ltd (See Website)

Whether a connection exists between Thompson’s mice and those in Pittsburgh’s Eastern neighborhoods is unknown.  In any case, the Pittsburgh rodents have captured imaginations.  At East Liberty, the mouse has been named Calvin.  Heinz Chapel displays the mouse prominently on their website.  And, Shadyside’s newsletter has long been known as the Church Mouse.

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