Palmer-based artist Monica Estill Turner, 52, has spent years painting but has long-hoped for the chance to offer her creative gift in elevating the sacred interior space of a church. This summer her desire was partly fulfilled when she was commissioned to transform the 750 square foot campus chapel at Holy Rosary Academy in Midtown Anchorage.
She spent nearly two months transforming the little chapel of the K-12th grade school. Located on the school grounds, the chapel is a converted small split-level house complete with an attached carport. Its understated green and grey exterior opens into to a rich setting with a marble altar central.
This renovated space hosts Mass multiple times each week and serves as a convergence point for local Catholics. Besides studies and all-school prayers, a ladies’ group meets in its basement monthly to pray for the school and the city of Anchorage. Catholic Daughters of the Americas also maintain a presence there.
The chapel is also familiar to each of the archdiocese’s current seminarians, all of whom have some tie to the school, as a student or helper over the years. Newly ordained priests Father Arthur Roraff and Father Patrick Brosamer are especially attentive to the students, and Principal Catherine Neumayr notes that anytime schedules become too demanding, area priests have generously served by celebrating Mass in the chapel.
Neumayr said the recent installations of statuary and art at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School in South Anchorage played an inspirational role in her decision to direct funds to the chapel refurbishment. Estill Turner had been longing for just such a project, so when she approached Neumayr after Mass one day, a vision began.
Estill Turner studied at Thomas Aquinas College after spending four years in a cloistered Carmelite monastery in Santa Barbara. She came to Alaska in 2006, after a few years designing high end residential interiors in the Washington, D.C. metro area. She has the added experience creating sacred art in Anchorage area homes, businesses and Catholic schools. For the Holy Rosary project she was joined by Jane Bennett of Eagle River in faux finishing a few areas of the chapel, such as adding a simulated woodgrain that now surrounds the doors and windows with traditional style.
With this project, she initially intended to simply brighten the ceiling and warm up the walls. She laughs heartily while crediting Neumayr’s trust in her, and her own openness to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. In painting the chapel she utilized warm tones to create a sense of coziness while hinting at the transcendent. Her decision to place of a sunrise directly behind the tabernacle, though, surprised her.
“I just kept doing what we had not agreed to, but a voice prompted me at every step,” Estill Turner said.
The chapel is now complete with a floor-to-ceiling waterfall mural based on Psalm 42. Each wall in the main chapel features a nuanced natural scene, with stormy elements leading to the peace of the Eucharist.
Estill Turner previously felt the chapel was “boxy,” but now the eye flows upward and wraps the room cohesively. Stations of the Cross hang low enough to catch Kindergarteners’ interest with the drama of Christ’s Passion and a relic of Saint Pius X graces a corner shelf.
Estill Turner’s work finished on August 11, just before the start of the new school year. She worked through the night to ensure the space was ready for the first Mass of the year.
“I’ve always wanted to paint a church, there’s no higher function for an artist,” she told the Catholic Anchor.
Both Neumayr and Estill Turner cite classical education, with its orientation towards discerning goodness, truth and beauty, as the aim of their efforts in the chapel.
Estill Turner grew up in California, the youngest of 12 children. She recalled that her father’s life was filled with manual labor in order to support his family, but art was an avocation for him, as it is for her siblings.
She spoke freely about the cultural drive to create beyond what some may consider fitting for conventional Christian spaces, as well as her interior drive to claim any space which can elevate souls to God.
“We have lost a sense of simply being human beings,” she said. “We’re limited creatures and must be allowed sensory connection to Our Lord through creation. Everything beautiful can and should be catechetical.”
She recalled the contrast of her own youth, spent in a culture which reinforced Catholic values, and that of today’s youth where Christianity is often aggressively derided. The coming generation must be given reasons to love and choose their faith daily, she emphasized, calling the journey with God a “brave choice based on the love story of Our Blessed Lord.”