His mother said to the servers, “Do whatever he tells you.” John, 2:5
Pero su madre dijo a los sirvientes: “Hagan lo que él les diga.” Juan, 2:5
A cross-religious collaboration:
Muslim artist's portraits of saints grace St. Patrick Church
Paintings at St. Patrick Church in Providence - along with large Nativity and Crucifixion scenes - reflect a unique collaboration between the Rev. James T. Ruggieri, the church's pastor, and Muslim muralist Munir Deishinni Mohammed.
By Karen Lee Ziner
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The 24 newly painted portraits of saints at St. Patrick Church span centuries and cultures, from a Ugandan martyr executed in 1886, to an Italian priest who in 1918 experienced "the spiritual gift of stigmata" that remained with him for the rest of his life.
The paintings — and two large Nativity and Crucifixion scenes — also reflect a unique collaboration between the Rev. James T. Ruggieri, the church's pastor, and Muslim muralist Munir Deishinni Mohammed. The images, and the newly renovated space, were blessed on Christmas Eve as the parish marked its 175th anniversary. "I think the collaboration is really beautiful," said Father Ruggieri. "It's amazing we are doing it together. It's all for the glory of God."
The men have known one another for some 18 years: Mohammed's wife, Linda A’Vant-Deishinni, and her parents belong to the parish. (A'Vant-Deishinni works for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence). Father Ruggieri marvels at Mohammed's work and calls him "a man of good will." Mohammed admires Father Ruggieri's "broad-mindedness," and humanity.
"I always tell Father, we both might come from different religions but humanity is number one, how we treat one another. And we all are striving to get to the same place. Some might go through the highway, some might go on the side roads, some may use a machete and cut through the jungle," said Mohammed, "but we are all are getting there to God, to heaven."
Mohammed, a Ghana-born artist who gained prominence by painting portraits of African heads of state, has a master's degree in art education from the Rhode School of Design. He is artist-in-residence at the William M. Davies Jr. Career & Technical High School in Lincoln, under RISD's Project Open Door program.
His many public works include the Route 95 mural that features an image of mill windows by renowned artist Gretchen Dow Simpson; and a mural at the offices of Oasis International Inc. on Broad Street. He painted the 4-by-8 foot "Giants Whose Shoulders We Stand On" for the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society.
Father Ruggieri was familiar with Mohammed's artistic work, but got a close-up view at Mohammed's home two years ago. "It stayed in my mind," he said. At that time, parish leaders were discussing possible renovations for the church at 244 Smith St., the church's third location, in advance of its 175th anniversary year. (The prior building, across from the State House, had been condemned and torn down). The current church space had been an auditorium within the St. Patrick's Academy building. "The initial renovations were completed in 1988," Father Ruggieri said, "but it had been 27 years. It needed a facelift. We needed some sprucing up for our anniversary." That included painting and refinishing the entire space, and moving the Tabernacle and a corpus of Christ.
One issue: what to do about a series of faint, repetitive images on the walls of an anonymous holy figure, meant to represent "a crowd of witnesses." Parish leaders decided they should be replaced with specific saints. "We wanted to go from general to particular," Father Ruggieri said. "They're heroes. Their stories are so encouraging. And we were seeking saints who represented different cultures and time periods and races," reflective of the diverse congregation. The church draws its 900 parishioners from across the city, and beyond. Sixty percent of the congregants are Spanish-speaking.
"When this project came up, he [Mohammed] immediately came to mind," Father Ruggieri said. "His area of expertise is portrait painting. I knew his work, and I thought, he's the man to do this." Father Ruggieri chose 17 of the 24 saints. Parishioners chose the remaining seven, during a weekend "election."
Mohammed started work six months ago, standing or sitting on scaffolding for hours at a stretch. He strove for cultural and ethnic accuracy in each of the 2½-by-4-foot paintings, as well as the Nativity and Crucifixion scenes. The Crucifixion includes lettering in Hebrew, Latin and Greek.
Working from oft-generic, Europeanized images from the Internet, Mohammed said, "I would look at faces and find similarities of people of that area. I would portray people to look like their background," whether from northern Africa, Italy, and Peru, to Colombia, Poland, France and the Sudan.
He painted St. Paul Miki — a Jesuit from Japan — in a kimono. In one hand, Saint Miki clutches a spear. "They crucified him, but they finished killing him with a spear, so I chose a Japanese spear," Mohammed said. Another image represents St. Miguel Pro, who was executed for practicing Catholicism clandestinely in Mexico at a time of religious persecution.
"They ended up shooting him by firing squad," said Father Ruggieri. "He chose not to be blindfolded. He extended his arms like a cross," and before the shooting began, he cried out, '!Viva Cristo Rey!' — 'Long live Christ the King.'”
The day Mohammed completed his work at St. Patrick, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis has approved Blessed Teresa of Calcutta for canonization — full sainthood — next year. "I said, 'Don’t put the sealant on ‘Blessed ...'” Father Ruggieri said of Mother Teresa's image. When the time comes, Mohammed will climb back up the scaffolding, and do a touch-up.
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