November 22, 2019

Church’s new paintings connect beauty of art to joy of faith, attracting people to Christ

People kneel in prayer on Nov. 2 in St. John the Evangelist Church in Indianapolis before two paintings that the downtown parish commissioned. They portray St. Francis Xavier and St. Theodora Guérin, the archdiocese’s two patron saints. Father Rick Nagel, St. John’s pastor, blessed the paintings created by parishioner Michael McCarthy during an All Souls Day concert of Gabriel Faure’s “Requiem.” (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

People kneel in prayer on Nov. 2 in St. John the Evangelist Church in Indianapolis before two paintings that the downtown parish commissioned. They portray St. Francis Xavier and St. Theodora Guérin, the archdiocese’s two patron saints. Father Rick Nagel, St. John’s pastor, blessed the paintings created by parishioner Michael McCarthy during an All Souls Day concert of Gabriel Faure’s “Requiem.” (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

People made their way slowly to the front of the dimly-lit church. They lit votive candles, placed them before newly unveiled paintings of two saints and knelt to pray for their deceased loved ones.

The paintings of St. Francis Xavier and St. Theodora Guérin soon glowed with the light from the many candles sitting before them.

All the while, the church echoed with the sacred sounds of a choir organ and orchestra performing the beautiful and moving “Requiem” by Gabriel Faure, a late 19th-century musical setting of Latin prayers for the Mass for the dead (listen to the piece here).

The beauty of art, music and faith came together on Nov. 2, All Souls Day, at St. John the Evangelist Church in the heart of downtown Indianapolis.

In offering this beauty, St. John’s parishioners made alive today the ancient tradition of the Church being a patron of the arts to give glory to God and attract people to Christ.

“It reminded me of the journey into heaven,” said parish pastor Father Rick Nagel of the evening. “We don’t do it alone, and we need people praying for us. We also pray for others and support one another.”

‘All I could do was just cry’

PaintingAbout two years ago, Father Nagel and members of the parish’s buildings and grounds commission decided to commission paintings to adorn two gothic archways in the south transept of the oldest Catholic church in Indianapolis.

The paintings would have to be large to fill the space—7 feet high at their tallest and nearly 4 feet wide at their widest.

Since St. John is such a historic church already adorned with beautiful artwork, Father Nagel was hesitant in going forward with the project.

“Anytime you do anything to St. John, you have to think long and hard,” he said. “If we were going to do this, it had to be done really well and fit in well with the architecture.”

But he didn’t have to go far to find the right person for the job, offering the commission to Michael McCarthy, a young adult St. John parishioner who was trying to make it as a full-time artist.

McCarthy brought more than his God-given artistic talents to the work. He seeks to put his faith into the heart of his art, which includes a painting of St. Junipero Serra commissioned by the archdiocesan vocations office and paintings of the three archangels that adorn the perpetual adoration chapel by St. Michael the Archangel Church in Indianapolis.

Once the project was designed and approved by the archdiocese, McCarthy put more than 400 hours into each painting, adding final details into his creations up to the last minute.

“I’d never thought that going full time as an artist was a possibility,” McCarthy said. “But creating pieces like those really requires a full-time commitment to creating them.”

In addition to special donors, members of St. John supported the creation of art for the church through a monthly second collection for extraordinary needs that has been taken up at the parish for many years.

By the time the concert started, McCarthy was exhausted as he sat near the front of the church and saw people lighting candles and praying before the paintings.

“I was totally spent,” McCarthy said. “I just sat in the pew, and all I could do was just cry, really. I cried because that’s why I spent myself, because the paintings were being used for the purpose for which they were created. It’s like you give birth to something and then that something’s purpose is being fulfilled.”

In the coming months, McCarthy will begin work on another commission from St. John, a work portraying the parish’s patron, St. John the Evangelist, which will be mounted in a larger gothic arch in the same transept.

The paintings of St. Francis Xavier and St. Theodora Guérin are expected to be mounted in the church by Christmas.

‘She has left her finger prints all over our parish’

PaintingIn his vision for the paintings, Father Nagel did not simply want portraits of the saints. He wanted them to be in action.

The painting of St. Francis Xavier portrays him baptizing an Indian man at the edge of a river, with his family looking on beside him. A young man wearing a cassock and surplice is portrayed assisting St. Francis and holding a white baptismal garment.

The painting of St. Theodora Guérin, the foundress of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, who was canonized in 2006 as Indiana’s first saint, is seen holding an open book and teaching three children facing her. They are sitting in a thick forest with a log cabin chapel in the background.

“I think they’ll be teachable, as all art and stained glass were meant to teach by the Church,” Father Nagel said. “That’s part of the reason why we chose for the saints to be in action, so they could be used as a tool to teach with as well.”

Including St. Theodora was especially important for the faith community. The Sisters of Providence began teaching at the parish in 1850, and the saint likely visited the parish and its founding pastor, Father Vincent Bacquelin.

“They shared in common the great adventure of being missionaries in the wilderness of the Midwest, and making an impact in the heart of a small village that would one day be the capital of Indiana,” Father Nagel said. “She has left her finger prints all over our parish. Today, the magnanimity of St. Theodora Guérin lives on in the hearts and minds of our parish life as the parish continues to grow and be a beacon of light in this new millennium.”

Although the Sisters of Providence’s educational ministry at St. John came to an end in 1960, Father Rick sees St. Theodora’s legacy continuing there in the parish’s efforts to inspire and form the faith of young adults.

“St. Theodora’s painting portrays her teaching the youth of central Indiana,” he said. “This is intentionally tied to our era as St. John continues to grow the young Church through investment in the new evangelization.”

‘It’s a gift that I feel Jesus gave me’

Through prayer, Father Nagel realized another layer of depth could be added to the paintings. So with McCarthy’s cooperation, he invited parishioners to pose for the paintings.

One was Vidya Singh, an Indian Hindu man who came to Indianapolis for graduate studies at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis. He came to know the Gospel at St. John and was received into the Church there through baptism, confirmation and the Eucharist.

In one of his last acts before returning to India, Singh posed as the man being baptized by St. Francis Xavier, who was a missionary to India in the 16th century.

Another individual who posed for that painting is Pauline Laue, another native of India who came to Indianapolis for graduate studies. She now works in the city as a psychotherapist.

Raised as an Orthodox Christian, Laue was received into the full communion of the Church in 2011 at St. John, where she remains a member.

“Coming to the U.S. was foreign for me,” Laue said. “But the one thing that brought me home was the Mass.”

She considers St. John “holy ground” and takes joy in its vibrant community of faith.

“It’s just booming with all generations, not just young adults,” Laue said. “It’s the Holy Spirit’s work through, to a great extent, Father Rick. He’s really responded to it.”

She was in attendance at St. John on Nov. 2 when the paintings were blessed and people prayed before them. Sitting at the front of the church during the evening overflowing with beauty inspired gratitude in Laue.

“It was a gift,” she reflected. “I have a very personal relationship with Jesus, and I know that this is something that he’s given to me through Father Rick.”

Now she wants to be generous in response.

“I have a personal responsibility to pray for people who view this painting,” Laue said. “It’s a gift that I feel Jesus gave me. It’s my way of giving back. My hope is that people know the love of God and how he reaches out to people.”

‘A soul moved to the fullness of the faith’

Father Nagel was also moved to commission the paintings because of his parish’s place in the heart of Indianapolis, situated across the street from the bustling Indiana Convention Center.

“The city of Indianapolis will host more than 1 million people this year,” he said. “And so many of them are right at our front door through the convention center.”

St. John has responded to this opportunity for evangelization by thus far training more than 150 parishioners as missionary disciples who are trained to share their faith in intentional ways in their everyday lives and bring other people to an active faith in Christ.

Father Nagel sees the art that fills St. John, including its two newest paintings, as avenues to bring the Gospel to a growing secularized culture that is more skeptical about the Church’s truth claims and teachings on moral goodness.

“[Visitors] can see beauty, and then they can move to goodness and truth more easily,” he said. “The paintings show the truth of the sacraments of the Church, and how they help us on our journey of faith and the truth of the call to holiness for all people.”

Just a few days after the paintings were blessed and the “Requiem” sung, Father Nagel got to see the first fruits of his parish’s efforts to evangelize through beauty.

He received an e-mail from an adult woman who came to Indianapolis as a vendor for a recent Future Farmers of America convention. She had never visited a Catholic church before.

But on the evening of Nov. 2, she saw people flooding into the church, was curious and followed them.

“She was so moved by that whole evening of art, music and prayer that she came back Sunday morning for Mass,” Father Nagel said. “She said she was home now and was looking for her new [spiritual] home, the Catholic Church.

“There it is, already a soul moved to the fullness of the faith that God brought in off the street that night.” †

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