John Bookser Feister
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
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.
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.
Art and Religion
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?”
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
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.
“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.
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.
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.
Everything in Sight'
Anthony Messenger interviewed Brother Michael O’Neill
McGrath, better known as Brother Mickey, about his ministry:
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?
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!
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.
What was in that Catholic environment that appealed to a
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
What triggered your decision to concentrate full-time on
McGRATH: Grief. My mother and dad died within two
and a half years of one another, and I expressed my profound
grief through art.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
more information, please consult Brother McGrath’s Web site,
Some of Brother McGrath's art is featured at our sister
Web site www.CatholicGreetings.org.
Gordon Kender was a teacher and a college administrator
at Allentown College before her retirement. She and her
husband live in Orefield, Pennsylvania.