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The Sacred Art of Michael O'Neill McGrath

By Margaret Gordon Kender

As a child, he was inspired by stained-glass windows in church. Now Brother Mickey's religious art inspires people across the nation.

Q U I C K S C A N

Photo by
John Bookser Feister





Brother Michael O’Neill McGrath, O.S.F.S., is a storyteller whose pen is a brush. His brilliantly colored illustrations, full of insight and whimsy, fairly jump off the pages of countless books and magazines. Readers may recall his striking portrait of St. Patrick which graced the March 1997 cover of St. Anthony Messenger. And in 1999 his art on the covers of America won two awards from the Catholic Press Association.

The Oblate brother’s instantly recognizable paintings hang in chapels, convents and retreat houses across the country. His popularity and reputation as an artist, retreat master and speaker grow daily.

“My ministry is to help folks learn to see with other eyes—the eyes of the soul,” he explains on his Web site (www.beestill.com), which describes his presentations (how to pray with colored pencils), his hero (Sister Thea Bowman) and his products (posters, notecards and books). He wrote the text and illustrated his newest books, Patrons and Protectors: Occupations (Liturgy Training Publications) and Journey With Thérèse of Lisieux: Celebrating the Artist in Us All (Sheed and Ward). And World Library is publishing his clip art.


Mixing Art and Religion

Michael O’Neill McGrath was born and raised in a largely Catholic enclave on the northern edge of Philadelphia. In the 1960s, the standard question asked of a kid in that area was, “What parish are you from?”

Mickey McGrath was a St. Matthew parishioner and the youngest of five children. The McGrath youngsters thrived on the direction and love of their working-class parents, Bernard and Jacqueline, and the expert teaching of the Sisters of St. Joseph, who staffed the parish school. The children also benefited from the care and affection of a nearby aunt who was one of these religious sisters.

In 1970, Mickey was introduced to the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales when he was a student at Father Judge High School, a huge edifice that gathered in hundreds of boys from neighboring parishes each year. In addition to his studies in the strictly academic curriculum, Mickey was exposed for the first time to the teachings of Francis de Sales.

The “Gentleman Saint” was a brilliant Doctor of the Church who believed that the gospel can best be preached and lived through gentleness, humility, patience, a prayerful spirit and genuine regard for the wonders of the natural world. All of this resonated with the cheerful, informal but deeply spiritual atmosphere of the McGrath home. Thus, Mickey’s decision to enter the Oblate formation program at Brisson Seminary at the end of his senior year seemed logical.

He majored in English and expected to teach at a school that was close to his family and friends. He also planned to live the usual life of an Oblate Brother. But Father Michael Donovan, who was his religious superior and the seminary rector, noticed Mickey’s numerous drawings.

Father Donovan offered him the opportunity to concentrate on art. Mickey had not considered this since it would require transferring to a different college from the one to which his seminary was attached. Father Donovan’s offer sent the gifted seminarian off to Moravian College in nearby Bethlehem, where he was able to major in art as well as complete his religious formation with his classmates. Today the talented Oblate brother teaches others about the healing power of creativity and the prayerful nature of art.


'Drawing Everything in Sight'

St. Anthony Messenger interviewed Brother Michael O’Neill McGrath, better known as Brother Mickey, about his ministry:

ST. ANTHONY MESSENGER: As a member of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales and a working artist, you have a vocation within a vocation. When did you first begin to think of yourself as an artist?
MICHAEL O’NEILL McGRATH: I can’t remember a time when I didn’t draw, and I never remember a time when most of my drawings were not connected with my religious faith. When I was very young, my parents rigged up a space in the basement of our home in Philadelphia where I could draw and paint. And there I was—a four-year-old with a studio!

My aunt, Sister Mary McGrath, is a Sister of St. Joseph. I spent tons of time at her convent, in my own Catholic school and in our parish church drawing everything in sight.

MESSENGER: What was in that Catholic environment that appealed to a young boy?
McGRATH: All of it had an attraction for me that was both sensual and mystical—the colors, the statues, the incense, the stained glass. All of it appealed to me and led me to express my reactions to it in the way that seemed most natural, through art.

You have to remember that our altars held lots of statues of the saints in those days, some of them quite dramatically portrayed. St. Francis Xavier went off to the Indies, and there he was on a side altar, standing with his cross held high, gazing on dangerous, unknown shores.

Some of those early Church figures and paintings stirred up a great sense of mystery and adventure. I didn’t realize it then, but my sense of myself as an artist and my religious identity were being formed through my drawings in those school years.

To this day I love old churches. I appreciate contemporary architecture as well. But the old spaces with their vaulted ceilings, their side altars dedicated to some of the great saints, the hidden nooks and kneelers, vigil lights in ancient holders—all of this enriched my imagination. And I was very much at home in the world of my Catholic parish.

MESSENGER: Did your family continue to support your interest in art as you grew older?
McGRATH: Yes. There was never anything but encouragement. My parents supported me completely. And when other kids played sports most of the time while I drew and painted, that was fine with them.

This made me seem different, of course. But one of my teachers, Sister Miriam, encouraged me to draw pictures of my classmates as they shot baskets or played tag football. So I used to go out on the playground at recess and do that. It made me a very popular kid.

MESSENGER: What reaction did your family have when you graduated from high school and decided to enter religious life?
McGRATH: My mother and dad accepted my decision to become a religious as a natural development in my life. The Oblates are primarily a teaching order, and that’s what I wanted to do.

They had started Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales (now called De Sales University) and established a seminary in Pennsylvania in 1965. That’s where I went for my religious formation and for one of my first assignments.

MESSENGER: Did you enjoy your life as a young faculty member?
McGRATH: Very much. The college was young and it was a great place to work. You had the sense of being in on the ground floor, of building something important and lasting. And, of course, it was founded by our religious congregation, so the de Sales philosophy of Christian humanism was the cornerstone of its mission.

In the beginning, I was not a lot older than most of my students. Many of them became the close friends I have to this day.

But gradually I began to enjoy teaching nontraditional students more than others. I particularly liked working with women. It seemed that their drawing class was a form of release for many of them, and I began to see my teaching in a different way. I was able to let these older students see that art could help them through some difficult times, as it had helped me.

The notion that art had a spiritual value became important to these nontraditional-aged students. And my work with them fit in very well with my attempts to develop myself as an artist.

MESSENGER: What triggered your decision to concentrate full-time on your art?
McGRATH: Grief. My mother and dad died within two and a half years of one another, and I expressed my profound grief through art.

Shortly after my father’s death, I heard the compelling story of Sister Thea Bowman, the African-American nun who had touched so many hearts and whose recent death at an early age after a long illness had been a story of hope and resurrection. I saw a video of her life that had such an impact on me that I literally began immediately to paint scenes from her story almost without stopping.

I ended with a series of nine paintings that seemed to flow out of my brush without effort over a period of only two weeks. When I showed them to friends, I was overwhelmed by their response and by requests for copies. Soon Thea’s story went with me to retreats and days of recollection. Gradually, I saw how the illustrations of each scene in her life affected people and helped to deepen their spiritual life. I began to envision a new and different mission for my own life.

MESSENGER: Did you simply ask to be released from your teaching assignment so that you could work as an artist?
McGRATH: Not exactly. When I approached our provincial and asked for permission to pursue a new vision of ministry through art, I wasn’t really sure what form it would take or what he would say. I knew only that art was a kind of prayer for me, a way of discerning the presence of God in my life. I thought my art might become for others what it was for me: a way to God. So I asked if I could teach part-time for a while so that I could try to develop this vision I had. As usual, I found great support for my venture.

MESSENGER: Two years later, when you left the college, is it true that you began with nothing more than a room to work in, some money for supplies and lots of encouragement?
McGRATH: Yes, that’s about it, and lots of prayer to St. Francis de Sales. In fact, one of my first projects in my new assignment was a calendar featuring scenes from his life—it’s completely sold out now. I guess it’s time to do another one.

MESSENGER: You recently spent four months in Minneapolis in association with the Visitation Sisters and then returned to live at de Sales Hall Formation House in Washington, D.C. What projects interest you most now?
McGRATH: I love sharing stories through art, and I would like to do a book. I see things book-size. In fact, most of my paintings are done on large spiral sketch pads, and as I turn each page, a story unfolds. I’d like to develop books wherein art could be used as meditation. After all, art is a way to recognize that we have a human need to see and touch mystery.

I am just finishing a series of scenes in the life of Thérèse of Lisieux that I did during my sabbatical time. I’m very drawn to the drama of her life. Her “Little Way” is so similar to the philosophy of Francis de Sales, and her writings reveal that she read his work and was heavily influenced by his book Introduction to the Devout Life. A priest-friend told me that thousands of people lined up to see the relics of Thérèse at each place along their recent tour of the United States. Clearly she is still attracting souls more than a hundred years after her death.

I’m also in the process of doing a series of black Madonnas, based on a Litany of the Blessed Virgin. I’ve completed nine so far. An editor has expressed strong interest in this project.

MESSENGER: Many of your paintings and illustrations are marked by whimsical touches. Is that part of your signature as an artist?
McGRATH: I guess you could say that. There are many different styles in my head, and I draw on whatever seems appropriate to the subject or the scene. Most of all, I like to portray great events from the New Testament or the lives of saints in ways that speak to people today. Sometimes that produces a whimsical effect, like my illustration of St. Francis de Sales sitting in front of a computer. That’s what he would be doing now, of course, because he was a writer. He wrote letters constantly as a way of evangelizing and as a means of giving spiritual direction to many of his friends.

The saints are very real to me, so it’s easy for me to visualize them as authentic human beings dealing with today’s issues and problems. If I can place them in contemporary settings so that people can see some of their favorite saints in situations that are similar to their own, they may be able to apply the message of that saint’s life to their own lives more easily. Sometimes those situations produce a humorous reaction. But it’s never disrespectful—just a way of seeing God in ordinary things. In fact, someone recently said the very best thing anyone could say about my work: that it showed the smiling face of God.

MESSENGER: Symbols play a major role in most of your pieces. Can you discuss that aspect of your art?
McGRATH: I use symbols constantly as a way of expressing ideas. For instance, a wall appears in many of the St. Thérèse scenes. It symbolizes many things: her Carmelite convent, the world, her physical pain, her crisis of faith. And as people pick up the language of symbols, they become more aware and more appreciative of the story that a painting is trying to tell. I also use a fishing line in that series to develop a concept. She used to go fishing with her father as a child, and I found that image useful in attempting to portray certain spiritual events in her life.

MESSENGER: Would you talk a bit about the Windsock Visitation, a painting that has had a strong impact in the city of Minneapolis?
McGRATH: About 10 years ago a small group of Visitation Sisters, the order of nuns founded by St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane Chantal, moved to Minneapolis to live among the poor and be a presence among people who needed spiritual as well as physical and economic help. They are in a contemplative order, but they decided to set aside certain times during the day when they would welcome kids from the neighborhood who had no place to go. In order to advertise the hours when they were “open for business,” they flew a windsock from their front door. Neighborhood children and others began to look for the windsock, and the practice of receiving visitors of every kind grew.

A mutual friend asked me to do a painting of the Visitation for their convent living room, and the sisters asked that the figures depict black women. I was thrilled to accept the commission, and I included a windsock in the painting. It’s installed over their mantelpiece, and it has become a sign of hope in the midst of poverty and violence, a center point for the people who live in that area. Copies have been circulating throughout the city, so the Windsock Visitation is now a symbol of a Catholic presence among the poor. It’s just one more example of how art can capture the minds of ordinary people.

MESSENGER: You’ve carved out quite a life for yourself. Do you see it continuing down this path?
McGRATH: I really live in two worlds: the busy, people-centered world of retreats, publishers and deadlines, and the isolated world of my artistic imagination and painting. These are truly two extremes, and I need to maintain a good balance between the two because one feeds the other. Without the quiet creative time, the spirit can’t work. But you could easily say that I have the best of both worlds, and I am grateful for that. So, yes, this is the path I plan to take for the foreseeable future.

MESSENGER: Your work and your life seem so obviously infused with the spirit of St. Francis de Sales. Is there a saying of his that is one of your favorites?
McGRATH: I don’t even have to think about that one. He wrote so many insightful things, but my favorite is this: “We should live on earth as if our spirits are already in heaven.” I guess I hope that my art can help people begin to live that way.

For more information, please consult Brother McGrath’s Web site, www.beestill.com.

Some of Brother McGrath's art is featured at our sister Web site www.CatholicGreetings.org.
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Margaret Gordon Kender was a teacher and a college administrator at Allentown College before her retirement. She and her husband live in Orefield, Pennsylvania.



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