Holy Innocents commissions artist to tell story of parish’s culture

By George Gregory
Special to The CS&T

When Father Thomas Higgins, pastor of Holy Innocents Parish in Philadelphia, met with his parish council in the fall of 2009 to discuss how to use funding from the archdiocesan Heritage of Faith, Vision of Hope capital campaign, he requested that part of the money be used to update the church building so that it reflected the changing ethnic culture of the parish.

Early in 2010, Father Higgins commissioned Oblate of St. Francis de Sales Brother Michael O’Neill McGrath, commonly known as Brother Mickey, to paint four pieces of art that would tell the story of the parishioners’ cultures. “I felt it was only right to use some of that money to create something to represent the spanersity of the parish and let the parishioners know that it is their church,” said Father Higgins. On Pentecost Sunday, June 12, the fruits of that commissioning were unveiled and dedicated. {{more}}

The four paintings that Brother Mickey completed for Holy Innocents Parish are:

Our Lady of Guadalupe: As an icon of the poor and marginalized, she represents the symbol of social equality and tolerance as the patroness of the Americas.

Jesus with the Holy Innocents: This represents Jesus as a youthful Good Shepherd of biracial (Latino/Vietnamese) descent, surrounded by the children of Bethlehem martyred by Herod’s soldiers in the attempt to eliminate the ‘new King’ he had been told about. They are surrounded by daisies, which are the Christian symbol of innocence.

St. Andrew Dung-Lac: Andrew was a priest who was beheaded in Vietnam in 1839, one of the 117 Vietnamese martyrs. He is depicted standing in a traditional cemetery arch-style gateway, and the 116 pearls on his clothing represent his 116 companions who were also martyred.

SS. John Neumann and Katharine Drexel: The beloved saints of Philadelphia are shown truly representing the Juniata section of the city, standing under the El tracks and holding Holy Innocents Church in their hands.

Holy Innocents Parish, established in 1927, was primarily made up of families of European descent with a strong Irish presence. The present church building was built in 1953, and in the last 10 years, Latino families, mostly from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, have moved into the parish. Latinos now comprise almost half the parish membership.

Also, a large number of Vietnamese immigrants have joined the parish in the last five years, making up approximately 8 percent of the registered Catholics in the parish.

Sister of St. Joseph Kathleen Anderson serves as coordinator of parish life and ministry and describes her work as a true gift.

“The different ethnicities that comprise Holy Innocents Parish are a visible reminder of the catholic (that is, universal) aspect of our Church,” she said. “At the same time, we emphasize that we are all one parish community and are striving to live out the Gospel call ‘That all may be one.'”

Sister Anderson explained that parishioners are given many opportunities to worship and pray in their own languages and traditions, and five times a year, they all come together for tri-lingual celebrations of the liturgy.

Brother Mickey, an author and artist, enjoys teaching the Catholic faith through art. He attended St. Matthew School and Father Judge High School in Philadelphia before entering the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales in 1974.

He resides at the rectory of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Camden, and works in nearby Sacred Heart Parish in Camden.

“I think the world of Father Higgins for commissioning these artworks, and am so humbled that they were installed in such prominent places in the church,” Brother Mickey said. Two of the paintings were placed on the side altars, and the other two were placed on the sides where confessionals had been.

“I love the new pictures and the stories behind them,” said Raquel Morales, a Puerto Rican immigrant and member of Holy Innocents Parish for the last three years. “Each painting represents one of our cultures, and people are always taking pictures of them – me too.”

Father Higgins said the paintings were slated to be dedicated on the parish’s feast day, Dec. 28, 2010, but when that was delayed, he thought of Pentecost Sunday. “It seemed appropriate to dedicate them on the feast of the Holy Spirit, the one God who blesses our one Body in its many workings and ministries,” he said.

Brother Mickey hopes the artwork will help the spanerse parish community to embrace the changes that are presented and truly come together as one. He emphasized the words spoken by St. Paul, and utilized by Pope John Paul II, Russian novelist Fyodor Doestoevsky and American journalist Dorothy Day that the “world will be saved by beauty.”

George Gregory is a parishioner of St. Cecilia Parish in Coatesville.