CHELSEA — The recent art project at The Church of St. Francis Xavier in Lower Manhattan, painted by Patricia Brintle of Queens, has received a national award from an organization that promotes stewardship of “sacred spaces.”
Last June, the parish unveiled the “Inclusive Icons” project, which featured 12 portraits of people from various cultures around the world and throughout the history of the Catholic Church. Ten of the 12 portraits appear among the Stations of Cross, and the other two grace the church entrance.
Last month, the parish learned the project won an “Award for Religious Arts” from the Philadelphia-based Partners for Sacred Spaces. Since 1989, this organization has worked to support historic places of worship. It also helps congregations to keep using these structures.
“A bold insertion” is how the award judges, in a statement, described the project. “This art installation finds a lasting way to add these pieces in the context of a historic church interior. Each icon has its own presence while supporting the older, larger Stations of the Cross artworks in new ways.”
Partners for Sacred Spaces is affiliated with the American Institute of Architects (AIA).
Brintle will receive the award on June 8 during the AIA’s annual conference in San Francisco. She also accepts it on behalf of the parish and its pastor, Father Kenneth Boller.
“It was a total team effort,” she said. “I’m just an instrument. The work really started with the people at St. Francis Xavier.”
The portrait subjects include St. Josephine Bakhita, St. Anrê Dũng-Lac, St. Óscar Romero, Servant of God Mother Mary Lange, St. Lorenzo Ruiz, and Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman.
The others are: St. Rose de Lima, St. Charles Lwanga, Blessed Rani Maria Vattalil, St. Andrew Kim Tae-Gǒn, St. Kateri Tekakwitha, and the Venerable Pierre Toussaint.
The project began in 2020 when a parish project committee invited local artists, including Brintle, to submit proposals for updating the church’s iconography.
But the committee passed on Brintle’s proposal — 10 small paintings depicting the parish’s history.
Committee members wanted to expand the church’s devotional iconography that mainly reflected the original congregation’s European heritages of the 1800s.
So they requested 12 portraits of saints — or holy people considered for sainthood — from the diverse heritages of the current parishioners.
Still, the committee liked Brintle’s portfolio. The members also appreciated her amenable willingness to collaborate on the project. She got the assignment.
“It was very unique,” Brintle said. “I have never done anything like this before.”
For example, Brintle explained she typically paints the subjects of her work as silhouettes with nondescript facial features. But the icons project challenged her to include details of faces.
She achieved that through research, consulting with the committee, and prayer.
“I want to hug all the people — from Father Boller, as well as every member of the committee,” she said. “I would not be receiving this honor if they hadn’t selected me to work with them.”
The history of The Church of St. Francis Xavier dates back to 1847 when Jesuit priest Father John Larkin set out to build a parish with only 50 cents in his pocket.
He prevailed, but fire razed the original church building. So the parish replaced it 140 years ago with the existing Roman Basilica-style church. It is located on 16th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues.
But this parish has a long reputation for embracing all the cultures that form the mosaic of Manhattan.
For example, last year, it expanded a memorial inside the church, which, since 1996, has carried the names of 200 people who died of complications of AIDS. In addition, the revision accepted another 580 names from a much larger memorial at St. Veronica’s Parish, also in Lower Manhattan, which closed six years ago.
Father Boller said the 12 portraits have achieved the parish’s goal of multicultural iconography.
He shared how one parishioner, a woman of Korean heritage, showed her four children the portrait of St. Andrew Kim Tae-Gon (1821-1846). This martyr was the first ordained priest from Korea.
“Her son, who was 7 at the time, said, ‘I didn’t know there were saints that looked like me,’ ” Father Boller recalled with a chuckle.
“That says it all — the point of having icons of various saints for devotional purposes,” he said. “But it’s also an inspiration to say that you don’t have to be a 16th-century European to be a saint.”