Written by Hannah Gallenberger
As Saint Francis of Assisi Chapel, on the grounds of Camp Tekakwitha, celebrates its 20th anniversary of dedication, Camp Tekakwitha highlights two pieces of art that call Saint Francis home.
Saint Francis of Assisi Chapel was dedicated on October 15th, 2002 by the Most Reverend Bishop Robert Banks. Saint Francis Chapel was built to replace the original chapel on site, which campers might now recognize as the current Theatre in the Woods. While the new chapel was being built, Bishop Banks requested two paintings to don the walls. The two paintings, painted by Sister Mariella Erdmann, OSF, depict the Blessed Virgin Mary with the Infant Jesus and Saint Francis of Assisi. Erdmann is a Franciscan Sister of Christian Charity based out of Manitowoc, Wis. The works are done in an indigenous style, with both pieces portraying the Saints with indigenous features and patterns, especially present in the collar and garment of the Blessed Mother.
Erdmann used oil paint over a wood board canvas so the natural grain of the tree would shine through. All of this was intentional to highlight the beauty of God’s creation and to give homage to the Indigenous cultures that have impacted the Church, Northeast Wisconsin, and the world. Erdmann was inspired by Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, Camp Tekakwitha’s patroness, to combine the styles of realism, iconography, and Indigenous styles for these two pieces. She was inspired by Saint Kateri’s Mohawk culture, which prioritizes care for creation. Erdmann merges the realism of the indigenous style with the timelessness of iconography.
Religious art is meant to draw the soul to the eternal, “beyond the here and now” says Erdmann. While the two pieces are certainly from the same hand, each offers a different glimpse of eternity. The painting of the Blessed Mother and the Infant Jesus has a quiet strength to it. Mary is looking at the viewer, with a slight smile beginning to form, and has a soft, inviting gaze in her eyes. She slightly extends the infant in her arms, as if to offer Him to the world, or more particularly, the viewer. The dove keeping watch behind her is the Holy Spirit, which “permeates her entire life” says Erdmann. Mary draws the viewer in, offers her Son, and draws the soul upwards.
Erdmann’s portrayal of Saint Francis is a visual masterpiece depicting the “Canticle of Creation,” a hymn written by Saint Francis himself. “Canticle of Creation” praises every aspect of the created world including the sun, the moon, the winds, and the rains, because Erdmann says, “everything spoke to [St. Francis] of God!” The many layers and sections within the piece each highlight a particular piece of creation that reveals a new aspect of God, its Creator. Francis’s gaze, from its spot in the chapel, pensively looks out over Loon Lake, as if he continues his contemplation.
These two paintings have seen thousands of campers and retreatants, and Erdmann offers tips to pray with religious art. Erdmann, in the words of St. Clare, suggests that the viewer gaze, consider, contemplate, and imitate. Firstly, one must silence themselves and gaze upon the image. Absorb all that is in front of the viewer. Secondly, consider the overall theme. Notice the people, or lack thereof, the colors used, and the symbols shown. Next, contemplate by asking questions like, “what is trying to be said through this painting?” or “what is this calling us to do? What is this calling us to be?” Finally, with the fruits of contemplation, imitate the goodness that is present. Perhaps the viewer imitates Mary’s generosity or St. Francis’s ability to see God in all of creation.
While these two paintings await another summer filled with campers, they grace the Chapel with a unique perspective. Since Camp’s founding in 1926, the former and current chapels have nearly 100 years of combined service. Camp Tekakwitha is grateful for the twenty years of graces, of contemplation, and of the many fruits, including vocations to the priesthood, religious life, and married life, which have found their roots within the walls of Saint Francis of Assisi Chapel. With great hope for the future, and through the intercession of the Blessed Mother, Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, and Saint Francis of Assisi, Camp Tekakwitha continues to build the kingdom of God through God’s Creation and sacred art.