By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — Two large oil paintings flank the altar in the St. Pius X Chapel at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, iconic and meaningful to northwest Missouri Catholics.
St. John Francis Regis is the secondary patron of the diocese. Archbishop Edwin V. O’Hara, the first bishop of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, had a devotion to Pope Pius X, who was canonized in 1954, and so named the chapel directly to the rear of the sanctuary in his honor. The chapel’s glass doors slide open, and its seats can be turned around to allow more people to participate in special Masses. The paintings are visible through the glass.
Some time ago, Kansas City-St. Joseph Bishop Robert Finn received a bequest that was to fund “something,” for the Cathedral. He was impressed with the renovation and restoration of the Cathedral done during Bishop Emeritus Raymond Boland’s tenure, and wanted the “something” to be equally impressive. He decided on artwork and through Cardinal Raymond Burke, former archbishop of St. Louis and a friend of Bishop Finn’s, Neilson Carlin was given the commission.
Carlin had worked for Cardinal Burke, who served as Bishop of LaCrosse, Wis., from 1994-2003, on the execution of four paintings for the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe near LaCrosse. Bishop Finn had visited the shrine and thought the artwork both beautiful and inspiring. He contacted Cardinal Burke, “who gave me a glowing report. He said Neil Carlin was very helpful to work with. And his work is beautiful,” Bishop Finn said. With that recommendation, Bishop Finn contacted Carlin sometime in the early spring of 2010. Carlin recalled that after discussing the project, the bishop asked if the paintings could be completed by June of that year. “I was neck deep in another set of commissions and knew I would not be able to hit that target,” he wrote in an email. “I offered a compromise of at least completing detailed color sketches and having them available for June, and Bishop Finn consented.”
The sketches were completed and sent to the bishop, and once Carlin was able to devote himself to the paintings, it took a few months to “nail down the exact particulars of the composition before beginning the full scale paintings.”
Carlin continued in close communication with Bishop Finn through emails and by telephone to work out design and content issues. The artist scanned and emailed several rounds of sketches and revisions to the bishop for his review. “Once the designs were finalized and I received the official sign off, it took roughly September 2010 to June 2011 to complete the works,” Carlin said.
Both portraits are oil on linen. Their smooth finish is achieved by using many thin layers of paint to build up the images. In areas of high light, including folds of a garment, Carlin uses a technique called “impasto,” thickly applied paint which adds dimension to the area, “makes them come forward all the more.”
Tim Ward of Ward and Ward, local fine art framers, designed the matching frames and framed the paintings. The frames were completed and the paintings hung in the chapel about a month and a half ago.
St. John Francis Regis was born into a wealthy French family in 1597. His parents, members of the nobility, saw to his early education. He began attending a Jesuit school when he was 14 and entered the Jesuit novitiate at Toulouse when he was 19. At his request, he was ordained a priest two years before the Jesuit formation period concluded.
The young priest ate little, usually a bowl of milk and some fruit, slept on the floor and taxed his body to extremes. He spent long hours in prayer, hearing confessions and preaching to the poor and children.
He dreamed of preaching to and serving the Iroquois in Canada, where the Jesuit order had missions. But his petition was refused. Instead he was granted permission to serve six months of the year, including the winter months, in the Jesuit missions in the mountains of northern France. The remaining six months he was to work in the cities, among the poor and the dissolute.
While serving in a poor hamlet in the mountains of northern France, John Francis Regis died of pneumonia in the midst of a severe winter, Dec. 30, 1640, at the age of 43. He was beatified in 1716, and canonized a saint in 1737. His feast day was fixed at June 16.
Despite the fact that he never left France, Canadian Catholic Mohawk Indians, members of one of the original Five Nations of the Iroquois, founded a settlement in New York 1755 and named it St. Regis. The settlement, which straddles the St. Lawrence River, the international border between Canada and the United States, later became the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation.
Two centuries after St. John Francis Regis’ death, Father Benedict Roux, a French secular priest, arrived in St. Louis with a burning desire to convert the Native Americans to Catholicism. When Bishop Rosati assigned him to minister to Catholics along the western Missouri frontier in 1833, Father Roux jumped at the chance to be near the Indian villages. He settled, for a while, at Francois Chouteau’s trading post at Kawsmouth, near today’s Kansas City.
A year later, Father Roux purchased 40 acres of land at what is now 11th and Broadway, for a church and rectory. He left the area in 1835, with the church still unbuilt. The priest sold off 30 of the acres. A few weeks after his departure, the Chouteaus contributed money to complete the building of the church. The simple log building was known as Chouteau’s Church, until it was officially christened St. Francis Regis, by Father Hermann G. Aelen in 1839.
In 1857, Father Bernard Donnelly built a church, constructed of bricks made in the parish’s own brickyard on Father Roux’s 10 acres, to replace the log church. He named the church in honor of the 1854 doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. Today’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception sits next to where Father Roux’s church was built in 1835 and later christened St. Francis Regis.
There are few likenesses of St. John Francis Regis in existence, but Father Paul Turner, pastor of St. Munchin Parish in Cameron, had located one for a Mass he wrote in 2009 as a memorial to St. Regis, and forward it to Carlin for the painting.
Carlin said that rather than depend solely on that likeness, he used as a model a lifelong friend who “looks EXACTLY like the image of St. John Regis. Long, narrow nose, short cropped hair and beard, he was a perfect match. Since the only existing likenesses are extremely limited in number, I felt free to lean upon a stand in who fit the feature profile.”
Symbolism abounds in the portrait of St. John Francis Regis. He stands preaching to several men and a woman who represent 17th century French peasantry. A cross on a long staff is in his right hand, and from the cross dangles a shell. Msgr. Robert Gregory, rector of the Cathedral, said the shell has long been a symbol of baptism — John the Baptist was said to have poured water from a shell over the head of Jesus as he baptized Him. “We still use a shell in baptism,” he said.
A cloud full of symbols floats above the heads of the saint and the people listening. Carlin said they represent the desire of St. Regis to travel to Canada as a missionary to the Iroquois Nation. The hatchet and feathers are common symbols of Native Americans. To Carlin, the central object, the wampum belt, is “the real key.” The symbol on the belt is that of the Five Nations of the Iroquois (which became six nations in 1722), and wampum were shells used and traded as currency by the Eastern tribes. When woven into a belt, it became a treasured tribal record, he explained.
The artist said the image of Pope St. Pius X posed a different set of challenges. “I had to build the design around the best photo reference I could find of his head. From there I posed a model in full papal costume and then drew on the head of St. Pius during the sketching stage.” He added that he often has to act as “a human Photoshop program stitching together multiple images.”
Like its companion piece, the portrait of Pope St. Pius X contains a great deal of symbolism. Msgr. Gregory said that Pope St. Pius X gave a great gift to the Church. In 1910, he officially lowered the age of First Eucharist from 12 to the age of reason, usually around 7, which enabled children to receive the body of Christ at about the same age as when they began to understand what they were doing and why. Thus, the pope holds the Blessed Sacrament in the monstrance, while two children, a girl and a boy, stand before him to receive the Eucharist for the first time.
“My father was an early beneficiary of the lowering of the age,” Msgr. Gregory said. “He was born in 1902, so he would have been able to make his first communion around 1910.”
Archbishop O’Hara was devoted to Pope St. Pius X for his lowering of the age of First Eucharist, and even chose as his Episcopal motto Jesus Christ’s urging to “Let the little children come unto me.”
Pope St. Pius X died of a heart attack Aug. 20, 1914, just weeks after the start of World War I. He was beatified in 1951, and canonized in 1954. His feast day is Sept. 3.
In the portrait, the pope stands with one foot planted on the back of a prone male figure. The figure may represent the devil, as a serpent is twined around his right arm. In his left hand the figure clasps a red-bound book entitled, “Loisy — L’Evangile et L’Eglise (The Gospel and the Church).”
Alfred Firmin Loisy was a French priest who became the standard bearer for the Modernism movement within the Church. His writings, including the book in the painting, were condemned by the Vatican. That and murmurs of heresy, led to his excommunication in 1908.
In two 1907 writings, the decree Lamentabili Sane and his encyclical “Pascendi Dominici Gregis”, Feeding the Lord’s Flock, Pius condemned religious modernism, and took disciplinary measures to stamp out what he called the “synthesis of all heresies,” including a commission to censor published writings. Every Catholic priest ordained between 1910 and 1967 had to take an oath that they would have nothing to do with modernism. Pope Paul VI abolished the oath in 1967, however, priests and bishops continue to take a modified form of it, Bishop Finn said.
Some of Pope St. Pius X’s legacy includes the lowering of the age of First Eucharist, a universal codifying of canon law; his encouragement of the use of Gregorian (plainsong) chant in religious services, and a translation of the Roman Missal that was used for decades. He had a special concern for the poor and victims of natural disasters.
The Blessed Virgin Mary stands on a cloud behind the pope, “enveloping Pius in her mantle,” Carlin said. Pope Pius X held Mary in great regard — he wrote that “spiritually we all are her children and she our mother, therefore, she is to be revered.” The pope believed that Mary protected him as Carlin’s image depicts her.
Above the pope’s head in a circular sun glow, a triangle of white light represents the Trinity. At its center are the Hebrew letters, “I Am Who Am,” Yahweh, God.
Near the bottom of the painting is lettered Instaurare Omnia in Christo, “to restore all things in Christ,” which became the motto of Pius X’s papacy.
There are roses and rose petals scattered at the feet of both St. John Francis Regis and Pope St. Pius X. Carlin said the roses allude to the Passion and Blood of Christ. He added that he is a convert to Catholicism from evangelical Christianity, and finds the imagery of the roses so powerful they can be found in many of his works.