Miloje Milinkovic has spent the past 12 years working by himself, but he is never alone.
Day after day, for many of those years, he has stood on a shaky 15-foot-high scaffolding at St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church in Jackson, painting images from the Gospels. He believes it is a sacred mission.
Over the years, he has come to know the stories of the saints, and he feels their presence with him while he works.
"I'm never ever alone, they're here," said Milinkovic, opening his arms wide.
Sometime in the next few days, he will put down his paintbrush.
After filling the church's walls and ceiling with more than 400 images, the iconographer will finally finish the art project he started in 1996 at the oldest Serbian Church in North America.
"I wanted to make sure I captured them because this is a special church to Serbs everywhere," Milinkovic said.
He worked at two other churches during that time, but St. Sava has a special place in his heart.
"This church was built by poor and hungry people who didn't have much but made sure they had a church," said the artist. "I wanted to make it just right."
St. Sava, which opened in 1894, is the mother church of all of the Serbian Orthodox churches on the continent. The church was built by miners; 11 died in one accident on Aug. 27, 1922, and are buried in the graveyard that surrounds the church.
Serbian Orthodox churches are not considered complete without frescoes. In 1996, Milinkovic – who previously had worked at the Church of the Assumption in Fair Oaks – began painting.
Church leaders won't disclose the cost, but "it is well into the six figures," said the Rev. Stephen Tumbas, the church's priest. He added that it was a big financial undertaking for a congregation of about 50.
Visitors often have dropped by to see the small white church that sits on a hill off Main Street. Now that the frescoes are nearly done, church leaders expect even more.
"The work is amazing. People are already coming by," said Tumbas. "Miloje has accomplished in 12 years what it often takes generations to do."
Now the walls and ceilings are covered with brightly covered religious images that represent scenes from the Bible. The birth of Jesus, the raising of Lazarus, Jesus' death on the cross. There are also drawings of saints and other holy figures that would have special meaning to the Serbian Orthodox such as St. Sava, a member of the royal family who gave up his crown to become a monk.
"Iconography is considered the poor man's Bible," said Triva Pavlov, a deacon in the church. "Most of the people didn't read, but they were familiar with the stories."
Milinkovic, who turns 50 today, found his calling at 20 and trained under experts in Serbia and Greece. He also lived with monks so he could have a better understanding of the ascetic life of many of the saints, a lifestyle he admires. He tries to live simply – Pavlov said he has seen the artist take naps on the floor.
The artist's dedication has impressed those who have watched him work over the years.
"God provided us with Miloje," Pavlov said. "God has guided his hand in the writing of these icons."
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