Alaskan paints life-sized saints for co-cathedral

Mary Ann Swalling’s three-year odyssey to create life-sized portraits of eight saints of the Americas, culminated with their recent installation in the niches in the walls of Our Lady of Guadalupe Co-Cathedral in Anchorage. On Sunday, Aug. 14, Anchorage Archbishop Roger L. Schwietz blessed the artwork at a solemn Mass, with a full church joining Swalling’s family and friends in celebration of an achievement marked by artistic, spiritual and personal challenges.

A life-long artist, Swalling has a fine arts degree from Dominican University’s Rosary College of Arts and Sciences near Chicago. She has a studio in her home where she has crafted a multitude of works in diverse media such as stained glass, printmaking and sculpture, and more recently, portraits.

A parishioner of the co-cathedral, she is active in the liturgical design ministry.

“My job is to establish parameters for any sacred art, so everything is coordinated,” she said.

Since completion of the church 10 years ago, Swalling and her associates have worked with artists and donors for the installation of the stained glass windows, the Resurrection cross behind the altar, and the smaller cross in the chapel.

“I kept waiting for a donor to come forward and put something in the niches,” she explained.

In April 2013 she approached former pastor, Father Vince Blanco, and asked if she could create portraits for those niches, fully aware of the scope of the task she was undertaking. At Sunday Mass she would hear the refrain from the popular song, “Here I am Lord, is it I Lord?” and felt called to the work. After consulting with her husband, Chris Swalling, as to the necessity of donors, she decided the effort would be her gift to the parish, and receive no compensation.

Our Lady of Guadalupe’s designation as Patroness of the Americas inspired the liturgical design ministry to honor saints of North, Central and South America. Collaboration between ministry members and Father Blanco resulted in the choice of four saints. The other four were selected from a list of 12 candidates by a vote of the parishioners. Those chosen represent the ethnicities and cultural diversity of the parish and consist of four women and four men. The women are Saint Katherine Drexel, Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini (Mother Cabrini), Saint Rose of Lima and Saint Kateri Tekakwitha. The men are Saint Juan Diego, Saint Damian of Molokai and Saint Martin de Porres. Saint Lorenzo Ruiz, a Philippine martyr, was chosen as an homage to the many Filipino congregants and because at one time the Philippines was an American protectorate.

While some strongly favored a portrait style similar to Byzantine iconography, Swalling felt the Spanish Mission architecture of the co-cathedral and the design elements of the existing sacred art should be consistent. Honoring the tradition of Byzantine icons, which tell a story through their attendant symbols, Swalling created “iconic portraits which do not look Byzantine,” she said.

“Before I began sketches, I did months of research,” Swalling said. She spoke with fellow parishioners and asked what images would appeal to them — how they would recognize the respective saints, and what styles of dress and footwear, skin tone and facial features would likely have belonged to them. She dedicated considerable research to determining appropriate symbols that were unique to the respective saint. On a trip to the Cayman Islands she enlisted the help of a pool maintenance man, himself of mixed race heritage, to fine-tune the visage of Saint Martin de Porres.

“I was determined to be true and authentic to the ethnicities of these saints,” she said. “I wanted images people would recognize.”

No sooner had the work on the extensive project begun, Swalling had to contend with a serious health issue. While the rigors of medical procedures were physically demanding, she limited her work to research.

“During treatment, it created a balance in my life. I did what I could do, focused on the project and set goals,” she said. “I spent one and a half years doing research, and one and a half years creating the images.” she said.

The work was all-consuming, Swalling said, admitting that she often resented having to do other things. While working, she regularly lost track of time.

“The whole time I was working, I was inspired,” Swalling recalled. “I left myself open to whatever energy would come to me. There were times when they almost painted themselves — especially the faces.”

Having never created anything of such magnitude before, Swalling said she felt a little more pressure to do things right when Our Lady of Guadalupe was designated as a co-cathedral.

The orientation of each of the full body images is towards the altar and the crucifix. “It has been my hope,” Swalling said, “that while these saints will grace the niches; they will join us as the communion of saints when we worship all together.”

In his opening remarks at the Mass celebrating the installation and blessing

of the images, Archbishop Schwietz said, “We gather to thank God for the gift of art and the saints that have gone before us.” He later urged the assembly to “look up the lives of these saints and reflect upon how we are called to live out the truth of our faith.”

Before the liturgy’s conclusion, Swalling gave a personal reflection, charged with emotion and gratitude.

“Wow,” she began. “I’ve been waiting a long time for this day.”

Through trials and set-backs that threatened her dreams, she noted the unwavering support of her husband, and the invaluable assistance of Pete Hickel, who constructed the panels on which the images were painted, and the frames which showcased the portraits, mimicking design elements in the crucifix. To those gathered, she said, “I thank you all for your patience and your hope in me.”

Tears filled her eyes as she said, “My saints are home,” and added, “These saints and all they represent will always be a part of the parish family.”

Click here to view photos from this event.

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