By Dominique Johnson
The North Star Catholic
When Sacred Heart Parish in Wasilla was built 22 years ago, two arches were included behind the altar to include artwork in the sanctuary. Father Joseph McGilloway shared that he wanted to complete the vision when he was assigned pastor of the parish. In June, the idea was realized with the completion of icons in the church.
Father Joseph said the first thing he considered when choosing an artist to consult was the current artwork in the church. “The artwork that exists in our church was done locally, by Alaskan artists,” Father Joseph said. After doing some research, he learned about the icon work of Deacon Charles Rohrbacher.
Deacon Charles, who ministers at the Co-Cathedral of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Juneau, has completed icons on display at the Co-Cathedral, St. Paul the Apostle in Juneau, and St. Nicholas of Myra in Anchorage. Another reason the parish leaned toward including icons in their sanctuary was because the Byzantine Catholic Church shares the worship space when they celebrate their liturgy in Wasilla. So, the use of icons “relates to the two rites that are celebrated in our church,” Father Joseph said.
When beginning the creative process, Father Joseph and parishioners wanted the icons to complement the large crucifix based on the face of the Shroud of Turin, that is behind the altar at Sacred Heart. In addition, they knew they wanted the icon to include Mary, the mother of Jesus and the beloved apostle, who were at the foot of the cross.
Before beginning the icon writing, Deacon Charles made a preliminary visit to the parish to learn more about what they envisioned and to measure the space where the icons would be. After looking at the two arches, he thought to himself, “that’s a big space to fill” with just two icons. So, he proposed the addition of the holy women and the Roman centurion to the work. Deacon Charles added that the additions were not just for the sake of filling the space but “to add balance to artwork.” Behind the icons you will see the wall of Jerusalem since Golgotha was outside of the city walls.
One of the differences from his usual work was “the center of the composition is a three-dimensional crucifix,” and balancing the icons with the size of the corpus, which measures around seven feet tall. Before starting the work inside the arches, Deacon Charles made drawings of his plan and scaled them for the area where he would later paint them. He also designed the panels that the artwork would be placed upon, using plywood on top of the material used to make highway signs.
In March 2020, Deacon Charles began drawing the outlines of the icons at Sacred Heart but could not complete the work due to the pandemic and concerns about travel restrictions back to Juneau.
Deacon Charles returned to Wasilla 13 months later to finish the project. Having been away from the project for over the year, he said he had a moment where he thought, “What if I go up there and I hate them?” However, when he stepped back into the sanctuary and saw the icons, he was okay with them, he joked.
He spent three weeks completing the icons, adding the background and color. Parishioners had built him a scaffold to work in the tall archways and so he did not have to go up and down a ladder. Deacon Charles appreciated their support and prayers as he finalized the icons.
Since the completion of the artwork, Father Joseph said he has noticed that the icons have helped draw parishioners’ attention to the altar during Mass. “I can see that they are watching the icons during the liturgy. I can see their eyes are focused,” he said. This is good news, Deacon Charles said, because “The whole purpose of icons is to draw us into the mystery of Christ and Mary and the saints.”