Art in Our Churches
Reflecting the Salvation of Holy Week
By Louise Brass, Observer Correspondent
April 2, 2020
It’s no easy task to attempt to reflect the beauty and drama of important Roman Catholic feasts throughout the year by decorating churches with meaningful and impactful designs.  
But many dedicated parishioners throughout the diocese are devoted to bringing creative and artistic displays and visual messages to their respective parishes, sometimes even under tight deadlines.
It is a job that requires parish Art and Environment Committees and Art and Design Committees to give the work detailed planning, inspired by their knowledge of Church history, with the help of liturgical directors and pastors.
Sometimes it requires more than a few good individuals with muscles to make it all come together, to move heavy items into just the right place.
“Those of us who have worked on any of the Art and Environment projects do it for the love of our
hurch, and satisfaction of a job well done,” said Barb Lundin, who has led the Art and Environment Committee at the Cathedral of St. Peter in Rockford for more than a decade. The committee has each particular project organized down to a carefully timed operation.
“A number of us have been doing this for 15-plus years, and it just goes like clockwork,” Lundin said. 
She is assisted by Cathy Weightman-Moore and Char Scamihorn. Students from local Catholic schools also often come to lend a hand.
“I am always so grateful for the help these students give me, sometimes at last-minute notice,” Lundin said. 
At the start of Lent, six large purple banners are hung in the cathedral and a very large, heavy cross is stationed on the side altar, draped in the purple cloth, with a help of students from Boylan Central Catholic High School and St. Rita elementary school. A crown of thorns is placed carefully at the foot of the cross.
“On the Saturday before Easter Sunday, there are four of us who place many large Easter lilies, ferns, and palms on each side of the altar steps, which consists of two levels,” Lundin explained. “Prior to Holy Week we have a separate and very dedicated group of people who weave palms into ornate pieces.” 
This year, with the coronavirus pandemic, many of these traditions had to be modified.
Normally, the palms are placed on a long table in the narthex, covered with a red cloth on the Saturday prior to the Palm Sunday Vigil Mass, waiting to be blessed and distributed.
Lent and Easter are perhaps the most challenging for the committees each year because of the tight timelines required for action.
Before Holy Thursday, all decorations have to be taken down and stored for another year.
The altar is then stark in appearance with not much left for Good Friday, Lundin added. 
Sometimes it takes a whole dedicated family to decorate the altars, narthexes and side chapels. 
Such is the case at St. Patrick Parish, in Amboy.
“There is timeliness for symbols, flowers and colors of each season or feast day,” said Cindy Shaw, a parishioner dedicated to making the church a place of beauty with the help of her family.
“The art and design should correlate with what is happening at the Mass and with what is proclaimed in the Gospels of the season,” she said.
For many years, with the advice of half a dozen different parish priests at St. Patrick, she has applied her artistic prowess. 
Together with her husband, Jeff, and their children, the family decorates the church for the many different liturgical seasons, especially at Christmas.
The Shaw children, Alexa, 29, Aaron, 25, Avery, 17, and Alena 12, have grown up with the tradition, she said. That means giving up some family gatherings on Christmas Eve to spend time in the church preparing decorations for the Christmas Masses.
“I think it is just my belief to make the church beautiful for God, so that when I go to heaven, when I stand before God, he’ll be proud of what I’ve done,” Shaw said.
At the Church of Holy Apostles in McHenry, Kristine Newkirk and Pam Craig are two women for all seasons, dedicated to creating appropriate art and design in their parish church throughout the year. 
“I send out emails with possible dates that the committee of six or seven people can come and make the church beautiful, whether it is for Lent, Easter, Christmas of any other important feast,” Craig said.
Then a week or so before decorating must begin, Craig and Newkirk get together to discuss design possibilities. They pour over a scrapbook of photographs detailing the décor of previous years to see if they want to replicate any favorite ideas. This usually generates new ideas, Craig said.
Then the pair climbs up to the church attic to hunt through piles of boxes to find the exact items that they need to make their vision a reality.
“The attic storeroom is full of things people have brought from year to year. Maybe we get ideas then, and we map out designs,” Craig said.
Newkirk says Christmas can be the most challenging because the trees are kept all year in the attic. 
“We are up there for hours, just trying to work out designs in the attic,” she said. “We really try to organize the place and put the trees (in) a certain area so we can get at them. Then we do a big haul of items from the attic, and the guys are a wonderful help. They work so fast and we need men because the trees are so heavy.”
But last Christmas, after the trees were retrieved from the attic, they found that some of the lights didn’t work and some trees were showing their age. So, the parish purchased six new ones to complement the group of 11 trees.
Helpers come in and out at certain times of year, and it can be difficult when volunteers have family obligations just at the time when decorations need to be put up, the women said.
But some parishioners always come through, like John Diedrich.
“He is very gracious and he comes to the church right before the big events,” Newkirk said. “He’s got an eye for the flowers and an eye for the space. We all work together. It is teamwork.” 
Getting volunteers together for this work is the hardest thing, especially with people working during the day. But once a date is decided on, a pizza night is planned for the willing, and the church is soon transformed.
While the parish priest is ultimately responsible for the work, most committees work with input from the liturgical director. 
“If something is not quite right, he or she will suggest a change,” Newkirk said.
Decorating altars is most important because they are the focal point of the sacrifice of the Mass. The altar at the Church of Holy Apostles is solid granite, she said. 
“It was taken from a local quarry and polished by parishioners. I try to decorate like I would at home with a warm, traditional feeling. Our space is large, and I prefer to have one big space and work things around it.”
Their work before Easter also features a 25-foot cross draped with a purple cloth. Its size is challenging, the devoted parishioners admit.
Whether a church or its altar is large or small, many plants, flowers, and palms are used in much of the décor, and they require careful and frequent watering. 
Only living plants and blooming flowers can be used on the altar, where the living sacrifice of the Mass is said, so the altar decoration is the ultimate focus of each cherished design.


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