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A Salesian’s artwork depicts the diversity in the church

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Brother Mickey O’Neill McGrath first learned of Sister Thea Bowman nearly 30 years ago as his father was dying. The young Oblate of St. Francis de Sales was in his parents’ house on a Sunday afternoon visiting his father, who lay on a bed in the living room. After his father fell asleep, Brother Mickey picked up a magazine lying nearby and read an interview with the Franciscan sister.


“It was the most astonishing thing,” Brother Mickey said as he recalled Sister Thea’s words on death and being a “troubadour for the Lord.”


A year later, he encountered her story again when he watched a film on her life — and that night he couldn’t sleep. Something was stirring in him.


“I couldn’t get to sleep because I had all these images in my head,” he said.


He began painting the next morning in a style completely new to him at the time, but what he’s best known for now — religious art. Until then, the Salesian artist had mainly painted landscapes. Over the following two weeks, he completed nine paintings inspired by the African American nun, teacher and advocate for racial justice. “I truly felt (the paintings) were completely inspired by a force outside myself, the Holy Spirit,” he said. “(Sister Thea) helped me find God’s will for me.”


So began his decades of painting the 20th-century nun, along with countless other saints and Catholic figures from across the centuries.


Brother Mickey said he is inspired by the lives of Sister Thea, Father Augustine Tolton and Nicholas Black Elk — people living in the margins — whom he described as his heroes.


Father Augustine Tolton was born a slave but escaped during the Civil War and later became the first known African American priest. Nicholas Black Elk was a Lakota Sioux medicine man who grew up in the aftermath of the Civil War. He converted to Catholicism as an adult and served as a lay missionary and is said to have baptized400 Native Americans.


“These are the people from the margins, and I think they’re the ones who speak to me loudest,” he said. “It’s easier for me to see Christ in the margins.”


Instead of focusing on the racism, prejudice and divisions around them, “they were listening to a different voice ” — God’s voice, he said.


That’s what he hopes his artwork — the colorful, dynamic and often joyous imagery celebrating their lives — will do, too. He will present his paintings and share stories of saints and prophets of color during an event organized by the Racial Justice Ministry at St. John Neumann Church in Reston, staffed by the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales. The event, “The Church is a Garden with Many Colors,” will be held online March 23. 


“It’s the beauty and the art and the music that heals us and moves us forward,” he said. “I see this as my way of helping in the healing process.” 


And he hopes the images and people they portray continue to inspire all who see them. “I want (people) to have a feeling of ‘I never thought of that before or saw it like that before.’ That’s how you know the Holy Spirit is at work.”


Bartlett can be reached at Meghan.bartlett@catholicherald.com.



Black History events

Mass and Black Catholic History Program, led by Deacon Al Anderson, Holy Family Church, 14160 Ferndale Rd., Woodbridge, Feb. 27, 5 p.m. 703/670-8161. 


“The Church Is a Garden with Many Colors,” hosted by St. John Neumann’s Racial Justice Ministry with Salesian Brother Mickey McGrath as he shares his art and stories celebrating saints and prophets of color, will be held March 23, 7 p.m., online. RSVP, racial.justice.sjn@gmail.com.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021