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Painted prayers: Reston mural celebrates Salesian spirituality

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For Brother Michael O’Neill McGrath, painting is prayer. 

For years, the artist and author, known as “Brother Mickey,” has been sharing his images of saints and their famous sayings in books and retreats, as well as on prayerful greeting cards illuminated with brightly colored birds and flowers.

But lately, Brother McGrath, an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales, has been giant-sizing his prayers — in the form of colorful, joy-filled murals on the walls of churches, a homeless shelter, a Native American school and even an AIDS relief clinic in Nairobi, Kenya. 

“I help people pray as a community and enjoy the meditative process,” said Brother McGrath. “When we’re going to that creative zone, we are co-creating with God.” 

His latest project, just completed, is at St. John Neumann Church, an Oblate parish in Reston, where he gave a presentation last year about his Nairobi trip. That sparked the idea: “Why don’t we do a mural here?” asked Father Joseph T. Brennan, pastor.

The parish Salesian Spirituality Committee thought a mural project would celebrate the beauty, hospitality and gentle spirituality of St. Francis de Sales, the order’s founder, and timed it to take place during the week leading up to his Jan. 24 feast day. 

Brother McGrath embraced the idea and designed the mural around the de Sales quote, “We should hide our littleness in God’s greatness, and stay there like a little bird, beneath its mother’s sheltering wing.” 

The words speak to both adults and children, who daily traverse the hallway outside the faith formation office. The mural features bold colors with pictures of birds, nests and feathers, reminiscent of Gospel pages illuminated by medieval monks. But instead of quills and inkpots, Brother McGrath bought six cans of bright latex house paint from Home Depot. 

“It doesn’t have to be big and elaborate; I present it as prayer,” he said. His goal is to help people who may not see themselves as artists “get past their fears and inadequacy and participate in bringing beauty into the world.”


The project took place the same week the church hosted about 40 homeless guests as part of Fairfax County’s annual hypothermia program, during which many area churches offer a warm place to sleep, meals and other hospitality during winter’s coldest months.

Homeless guests were invited to join the community in painting. One of Brother McGrath’s interests is “bringing groups of people together who normally would not meet,” he said.

The mural engaged parish staff as well as parishioners. The Oblate Father Donald J. Heet led prayers the first night and documented the mural’s progress on video. Staff in the faith formation office had front row seats, watching as the blank wall outside their office bloomed with color. “We all did a little bit of painting; once you start, it is very soothing,” said Silvia Bustamante. “Nobody wanted to give back their paintbrush,” added Betsy Puzzanghero.

The project created an opportunity “for children and adults to work together and see (the mural)  come alive,” said Mickie Abatemarco, director of faith formation. “The children will see what they have contributed each time they go by.” 

Parish nurse Susan Infeld  painted, even with a “broken wing” after a fall Jan. 1. 

 “Yes, it was contemplative,” she said. Wearing a cast “forced me to slow down and mindfully bow to the process. I very much wanted to have some small part in this beautiful community project and decided that God loves the broken as much as the healed, and would surely welcome my heart and my art — no matter how imperfect.”

That’s exactly the point, said Brother McGrath. “When you are your true self, you are being who God intends you to be,” he said. “That’s what my ministry is about.”   

 Find out more


To learn more on Salesian spirituality, a six-week class will be offered at St. John Neumann Church, 11900 Lawyers Rd., Reston, at three times different times: Saturdays, 10 a.m., beginning Feb. 22; Mondays, 10 a.m., beginning Feb. 24; Mondays, 7:15 p.m., beginning Feb. 24. Register, saintjn.org/about/salesian-spirituality/classes-and-events

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020