Having faith in art

Catholic Church commissions Muslim artist to portray the saints


PROVIDENCE — As St. Patrick Church approached the celebration of its 175th anniversary, commemorated during the upcoming year, Pastor Father James Ruggieri knew the parish wanted to do something special to mark the occasion. He also knew he had to find the right person for the job.

“The idea was, in commemoration of the 175th anniversary, we wanted to renovate the interior of the church,” said Father Ruggieri, who developed a plan with parishioners to replace several faded, repetitive images along the church’s inner wall with a commissioned art series.

“Obviously, we had to find the right person to do it,” he added.

That person was Munir Deishinni Mohammed, a Muslim artist whose previous works around the city include several large murals viewable at the offices of Oasis International Inc. and the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society, or while driving north on I-95. Mohammed has a master’s degree in art education from the Rhode Island School of Design and currently serves as the artist in residence at William M. Davies, Jr. Career and Technical High School in Lincoln.

The two men had known each other for several years. Mohammed’s wife, Linda A’vant-Deishinni, attends St. Patrick with her family and works for the Diocese of Providence. Father Ruggieri, who said Mohammed’s name came to mind when he began to envision the project, recalled visiting the artist’s home two years ago to pray over a sick family member and marveling at the artwork in Mohammed’s studio.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this man has great talent,’ ” he said.

Father Ruggieri proposed a series of paintings to Mohammed, who quickly accepted, and the two men began planning the collaborative project last spring. Father Ruggieri hoped for an installation that would highlight important moments of Church history while also reflecting the diversity of the St. Patrick community. The result was a series of 24 portraits of saints from a variety of ethnic and national backgrounds, as well as paintings of the nativity and the crucifixion.

“One thing I love about Father James is his broad-mindedness,” said Mohammed, who conducted research to ensure his representations of the saints would be accurate to their time period and country of origin. For example, St. Paulo Miki, a Japanese martyr, wears a kimono and carries a Japanese spear, while the appearance of St. Martin de Porres of Lima, Peru, reflects his mixed-race background.

“It’s not easy for people to look and see a change,” said Mohammed, explaining that his renderings of the saints sometimes appear different from traditional Western portrayals. The parish, he noted, was very supportive of how the artwork turned out.

Mohammed’s own background is different from that of many liturgical painters in the United States. The Ghana-born artist had a successful career painting African heads of state before traveling to Rhode Island, where he became involved with various community art programs and co-founded the International Gallery for Heritage and Culture in Providence.

“I’m one of the people as an artist who really started from scratch,” said Mohammed, explaining how, as a child, he first discovered his talent for art drawing pictures in the sand. He still leans toward the traditional in his methods, opting not to use technology like projectors to transfer initial sketches to the large mural space.

“I go with old school — the grid,” he said. “I do most of my work like that.”

His expertise shows in the finished paintings, which line the walls of the church on colorful backgrounds before culminating in the words “Go in peace glorifying the Lord by your life” painted over the rear entryway. Father Ruggieri chose 17 of the 24 saints portrayed, while the other seven were elected by the parish. Among them was the Divino Niño, an image sacred to worshippers from Colombia.

Work began on the paintings last June and continued at a rapid pace through December, with Mohammed often working long hours to complete the artwork before the scheduled Christmas Eve blessing and dedication. The artist said the nativity scene, one of the larger paintings in the series, would have normally taken up to four months to complete; he finished it in two-and-a-half weeks. Toward the end of the project, Father Ruggieri was recruited to help apply sealant to the paintings as Mohammed continued his work late into the night.

“It was so good to see how people of faith can really work together,” said Mohammed. He received two standing ovations for his work during the dedication Mass.

Both Mohammed and Father Ruggieri acknowledged their collaboration was unusual among church renovations and said they hoped the example would encourage other communities to engage in projects across faith lines.

“That’s the way I see life,” said Mohammed. “You don’t have to be a part of somebody’s faith to give love and to receive love. If we cannot accept each other’s differences, then we are not doing what God wants us to do. You are going so much away from God if you are using religion to hate somebody.”

Mohammed’s work took place primarily during the summer and fall, at a time when the Syrian refugee crisis and terrorist attacks at home and overseas caused an atmosphere of fear to take root among many parts of the United States. Mohammed said he and the parishioners continued to work closely during this time, and he felt outpourings of welcome from the St. Patrick community.

“When I’m working here, I have the most love from people,” he said. “I had people saying, ‘I am praying for you.’ ”

Father Ruggieri echoed the sentiment, adding that Mohammed’s presence in the church allowed parishioners the opportunity to engage with someone from another faith.

“For Christians who have come to know Munir, he gives us a real understanding of what Islam is about,” he said.

Though they follow two different faith traditions, both men see their role in the project as part of a larger effort toward building understanding between the religions. Mohammed said that if given the opportunity, he would gladly take up other projects in Catholic churches.

“Religion is here to instruct us and to give us solidarity, and at the same time to humble us,” he said. “My coming in here – it’s not my will, it’s God’s will.”