Prince George parish has asphalt ‘teaching tool’
What was once parking spaces behind Church of the Sacred Heart in Prince George is now a courtyard featuring a mediation garden, statues of Mary and Joseph, and a large mural depicting the Holy Spirit as it manifests in the world.
The project began in the summer of 2019 when the church parking lot needed to be repainted and restriped. Father Joseph Goldsmith, administrator of the cluster parishes of St. John, Dinwiddie; St. James, Hopewell; and Church of the Sacred Heart, said it was an “opportune” time to reorganize the lot.
Pushing the parking spaces back from the building helped open the courtyard area and made the double doors to the parish center, which also houses religious education classes, more visible. Later, overgrown bushes were removed, and a concrete sidewalk was poured around the area of asphalt where the mural now lives.
One reason for the work was that the area is the final view for funerals at the parish.
Father Goldsmith said that before changes were made, the “final solemn procession” from the rear door of the church led to a “sea of cars.”
“And at the end of every Catholic funeral, the priest thanks everybody, and he gives an invitation or lets people know the next instructions, and there’s always a description of where the reception is going to take place,” he said. “Well, you couldn’t do it. I couldn’t tell people… There was no way to give instructions because the doorways were not visible.”
Father Goldsmith said that as he noticed the “flow issue,” he saw the potential for the newly opened area to “be something.”
“I went and started planting that idea in a couple people’s minds. ‘What if this was something beautiful? Something decorative, like a mural?’” he said.
Big and symbolic
One of the people with whom Father Goldsmith spoke was Penny Merhout, an administrator at Church of the Sacred Heart. Her husband, Jimmy, drew an initial design.
Penny mentioned that she knew of a mural artist, Milly Horner, a retired art teacher of 30 years who had done murals at St. Joseph Church, Petersburg.
Horner came to Prince George to view where the mural would go. She explained that because the asphalt was so rough, the mural could not have faces or other fine details; it had to be big and symbolic.
“Art is not just beauty. It really functions on a variety of levels… These symbols (that appear in the mural), instead of literal depictions of people or specific symbols of the sacraments, are important because in order to talk about the sacraments, you have to discuss the meaning of symbols,” Father Goldsmith said, connecting symbolism with the Catholic faith.
The final mural design is a compass with each of the four panels depicting a scriptural reference to the Holy Spirit “active in creation.”
“We get the waters of creation and the Spirit hovering. We get fire and the tongues of fire at Pentecost. ‘Spirit,’ it means ‘breath’ or ‘wind’ in both Hebrew and Greek… and Psalm 104 says, ‘Lord, send forth your spirit and you shall renew the face of the earth,’” Father Goldsmith explained.
In October 2019, volunteers measured a circle for the mural and painted a white base layer with hard acrylic paint. The white circle, “Father’s helicopter pad” as parishioners joked, sat undisturbed until April 2020 when the weather improved and details could be added.
First, volunteers measured the compass to be accurate to the cardinal directions.
Then four teens from the parish, Samantha Newsome, Erin Winters, and Bethany and Sydney Robinson, volunteered to help paint.
They went to the art store in Petersburg to pick out paint, even mixing their own colors when needed.
As one painter added details like doves in the compass center or the “curly-Qs” that tie the panels together, another outlined a dry element of the mural in black.
“It almost looks like stained glass,” said Father Goldsmith. “It really makes it pop.”
‘Act of faith’
Horner wanted the teens to take full ownership of the project.
“She’s just been overseeing and giving some pointers. The girls are doing the sketching in chalk, then the outline,“ Father Goldsmith said.
He added that Horner incorporated faith into the work, telling the teens, “You always have to pray. You always need to take breaks and pray as part of this project because this is not just painting. This really is an act of our faith.”
Throughout the summer, the teens typically painted two to three mornings per week from 7:30 until around 10 when it became too hot to work. On Fridays, they often attended 10 o’clock Mass at the parish.
In addition to creating the courtyard and meditation garden, a cement sidewalk now connects the courtyard with the cemetery, where a new entrance was created by removing a dead tree.
Father Goldsmith said a trellis will be installed to the cleared space to frame the cemetery as one looks toward it from the church. A bench will be placed near the trellis.
“You get a little peek of the cemetery. A little peek of, hopefully, ‘My loved ones are buried there. My heart is in this place with my parish. My heart is destined to be with the Lord in heaven,’” Father Goldsmith said.
More greenery will be planted in the courtyard area by parish gardener Linda Harper, who created the garden space with flowers and bushes that will bloom in the spring. Benches will also be added.
Father Goldsmith believes the new area is going to be “the spot” at the parish.
“The other thing about art in Catholic churches is that it has always functioned as a teaching tool. It’s always functioned as a point of prayer and meditation, and a point of gathering,” he said. “Personally, it makes sense to me that the church has a place to gather (before parishioners take trips, etc.)… and we’re going to meet at the mural.”