It wasn't an easy job, the Rev. Joseph Weiss admitted, blending what had been two Summit Avenue parishes into one.
The Church of St. Luke had been a house of worship for St. Paul Catholics since 1888. Immaculate Heart of Mary, just a mile to the west, had been in existence for nearly 60 years when the two churches were merged and renamed in 2008 as St. Thomas More Catholic Community.
The combined church's home would be the former St. Luke's. The smaller Immaculate Heart of Mary was closed and sold. Hundreds of parishioners — some unhappy with the merger, some unhappy with the name change, some just unhappy — left. It was the job of Weiss, a first-time pastor who'd come to St. Paul in 2004 after teaching at Creighton University and Notre Dame, to make it work.
"There were some real hard things I had to do when I came here," he said.
And he had an idea — expressed from the pulpit during mass about four years ago — to continue unifying those who remained. He announced that he would like a painting made of St. Thomas More and his family. "And I want you to have this done before I leave," he said.
He laughs, now, at the enormity of the request. But, after mass, artist and parishioner Mary Klein approached. "You know," she said. "I could do this for you."
On Sunday, after more than two years of putting brush to cloth, the 10-by-6-foot, oil-on-linen painting will be dedicated in celebration of the feast of St. Thomas More, who seems an appropriate patron for this blended parish. His was a blended family of children from previous marriages. And he was a lawyer. "This community is 90 percent lawyers," Weiss said, smiling.
Klein, a teacher and an experienced artist who has mostly painted still lifes and landscapes, signed a contract for the project in September of 2012. She spent much time researching the indirect painting method she used on the More painting. With the indirect method, the final effects are built up gradually by placing several layers of paint one over the other, with the top layers modifying but not completely concealing the lower layers.
She used pictures of a painting by 16th-century artist Hans Holbein "to get the right palette," Klein said.
After 768 hours of work — from the start of applying paint to the linen to hanging the painting in what had been an empty lunette — Klein's painting is complete. "I feel very fortunate that I was not afraid to say 'Yes,' " Klein said of approaching Weiss.
Of course, Weiss' request was somewhat prophetic, too. He is leaving St. Thomas More the day after the painting is dedicated. He will return to teaching, this time at Boston College.
"I wanted to use the Thomas More family to call this community back to what it means to be a Christian family," Weiss said. "We had to have a new beginning. And the painting is part of that."
A new history
Longtime parishioners say the project has helped heal old wounds for some. For others, it's helped create a new parish identity. The painting is part of a larger shrine that includes a large statue of More, along with new wainscoting, vigil lighting and an engraving in the stone behind the statue. The engraving reads: "Oh Lord, give us the grace to work for the things we pray for."
"The whole thing really comes together beautifully," said Michael Sarafolean, who helped raise money for the project.
"There was a belief that we could do it. It was the how that was to be determined."
Jan Sedgewick praised the project — and Weiss' stewardship of the church during some difficult years.
"He kind of walked into a storm here, but he made it," she said. "And he thought this project will perpetuate the history of our church. A visual reminder of the history of our church. When the story is being told in the future, there it is."
She said she will miss Weiss' strength, his humor, and his beautiful singing voice. The painting will be his legacy, Sedgewick said.
Karen Dudley has been a parishioner in this church on Summit for 41 years. She contributed money for the painting. She said she doesn't know if the project has helped soothe the upheaval that happened. But, she said, the painting "is perfect."
"That space was empty. Something was meant to be there," she said, adding that she is grateful for all Weiss' efforts — at filling that space and bringing the community together. "It's a special thing."