Denver faithful buy cows for struggling African diocese

Small herd will be income source for Congolese Catholics

Roxanne King

Thanks to the support of local parishes through the Missionary Cooperative Plan, a diocese in Democratic Republic of Congo now has a starter herd of cattle, which means hope for meeting future needs.

Cattle are fundamental to the people of rural Africa, providing food and a means of financial support. Before civil wars devastated DR Congo’s economy, the Diocese of Kabinda in Congo-Kinshasa had a thriving herd of 1,500 cattle. Sadly, during the conflicts, rebels stole the herd.

This summer, Congo native Father Kibambe Crispin, parochial vicar at St. Therese Parish in Aurora, made a Missionary Cooperative Plan appeal to three parishes of the Denver Archdiocese to buy cattle for his home diocese. Through the generosity of parishioners—particularly Risen Christ Parish—$36,000 was raised, enabling the Kabinda Diocese to buy two-dozen cattle, which could eventually grow to a herd of 250.

“The diocese can get money in the future (from these cows),” explained Father Crispin, adding that it plans to sell cattle, meat and manure from the herd. Ideally, the Kabinda Diocese would like to have a herd of 100 cattle to expand to create a sustainable source of income for its needs.

“The diocese is facing a lot of challenges: there is no car for it; parish rectories aren’t in good condition; churches need repainted. We want to build a school in each parish,” Father Crispin said. “If someone would like to help they can send donations to the Diocese of Kabinda through the Missionary Cooperative Plan.”

Located in central Africa, the Kabinda Diocese is home to over a half-million Catholics. It has 30 parishes, 65 priests, 160 lay religious and 59 seminarians.

Although rich in natural resources, political instability, corruption and a lack of infrastructure have kept the people of DR Congo among the poorest in the world. Despite the nation’s problems, the Catholic Church has remained a constant stabilizing force, leading scholar Michael Schatzberg to describe the Church as DR Congo’s “only truly national institution apart from the state.”

The Missionary Cooperative Plan, a project of the Denver Archdiocese’s Social Ministry Office, works to foster the spirit of mission outreach. Each year, in partnership with the Society of the Propagation of the Faith, representatives from Catholic organizations visit parishes to share their experiences and ask for financial support and prayers. St. John Paul II described the necessity of missionary outreach in the encyclical “Redemptoris Missio,” saying: “Local churches … must always maintain an effective sense of the universality of the faith, giving and receiving spiritual gifts, experiences of pastoral work in evangelization and initial proclamation, as well as personnel for the apostolate and material resources.”

Although economically poor, the people of Africa are rich in faith, boasting one of the world’s largest Catholic populations (158 million) and turning out a high percentage of the Church’s priests. Father Crispin is among the priests his homeland has shared with the Denver Archdiocese.

“My presence here is a blessing (for me),” he said about ministering in Denver, adding that it’s a grace meant to be shared with Catholics back home. “My wish is to help my diocese.”

TO HELP

Email: Fara.Kearnes@archden.org
Call: Social Ministry Office, 303-715-3171

COMING UP: Why icons still matter to a modern world

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Icons have existed from the time of the early Church and grew in popularity over the years as an aid in prayer and worship — but today, icons are often seen as irrelevant to our modern world because of their perceived rigidity and austerity.

But it hasn’t died out, and there’s a reason.

In Denver, instructor Laurence Pierson, a former nun in the Community of Beatitudes, teaches a course at the Botanic Gardens called “Sacred Doorways — Byzantine Iconography,” which is the only icon painting class in the greater Denver metro.

Pierson attributes the long-surviving tradition of icons to the same reason the Church still exists.

“Tradition has great value, and if it’s an art that’s survived so many centuries, that’s because there is a great value to it, and it’s not only the tradition, it’s that mainly, it’s rooted in the Gospel,” Pierson said.

In an article called “Sacred Icons,” painter Aidan Hart quotes John of Damascus, who said of icons, “What the written Word proclaims through letters, iconography proclaims and presents through colors.”

Laurence Pierson, left, is a former nun of the Community of the Beatitudes who has been teaching an iconography class at Denver Botanic Gardens called “Sacred Doorways.” It is the only icon painting class in the greater Denver metro area. (Photo provided)

It is the same story of the Gospel, presented in art rather than word, and as the Gospel is timeless, so is the art of icons. And while they may look austere, that’s not something to be afraid of, nor is it irrelevant in our modern time.

“Even though an icon might look austere, it actually drives us beyond superficial emotions — they want us to go deeper. It’s a deep joy,” Pierson said. “I think you have to be quiet and go deeper. In the spiritual life, our ascetic aspect doesn’t have to be forgotten, and sometimes there is an ascetic aspect, and our human condition needs to be redeemed.”

“It’s a medium that has to be rediscovered, and there is so much potential,” Pierson added.

Sacred doorways and symbols

The deep spirituality of icons is part of what has preserved them throughout the roughly 2000 years that they’ve been around. Hart explains that icons are “not just pictures to look at, but are a door to heaven, a way of meeting those who dwell there.”

Hence the name of Denver’s class, “Sacred Doorways.” The material use of the paintings are a way for us to pass through the material world and into a knowing of the holy people depicted. This is just the tip of the spiritual meaning of icons.

The specific look of the icons: the elongated nose, the wide eyes, the dimensions and perspectives, are all intensely symbolic.

“Icons do not depict outward appearances, but reflect something of invisible, spiritual realities. In fact, all good art does this,” Hart said.

“An artist isn’t just someone who puts colors [on a canvas],” Pierson said. “An artist reveals the reality of this world, which sometimes isn’t possible to see. And icon painting is revealing this invisible reality and making it visible with lines and colors.”

Icons do not depict outward appearances, but reflect something of invisible, spiritual realities. In fact, all good art does this.”

So what are icons revealing through their symbols?

Here are just a few insights from Hart:

– Inverse perspective: “There is a number of perspective systems used in icons. With inverse perspective, the lines converge on us, the viewers. This serves to include us in the action depicted,” Hart said. “A sacred event in the past is still acting on us today, ‘Today Christ is risen.’”

– Flatness: “It helps us pass through the icon to the person and events depicted. The aim…is not to replace the subject depicted, but to bring us into living relationship with them,” Hart said.

– Anatomy: “The eyes and ears of people are often enlarged, and the nose elongated. This is to show that the saint is someone who contemplates God, who listens to him, who smells the fragrance of Paradise,” Hart said.

The spiritual process

Pierson has been painting icons for 25 years and teaching for 18. Following the rich tradition of the painting style is the first step of entering into the “spiritual journey” of painting an icon, Pierson said.

“It’s very important for me to get rooted in Byzantine tradition, especially because it’s an art that comes from the Eastern world,” Pierson said. “You have to be very careful not to distort ancient tradition but also find a way to speak to our modern world, so it’s a very delicate balance. For me, that’s crucial, to find this balance.”

“[Painting] has to be a solitary experience because you have to pray, but for me, it’s important to be anchored in a community and liturgical life,” Pierson said.

Pierson, who is commissioned to paint icons for the community often, begins with research and prayer, both to whom the icon is depicting and for the person who will receive the painting. Then the painting begins, which is an intense, multi-layered process.

The art of painting icons is far more than just a creative process; it’s a deeper spiritual journey that requires a lot of prayer, Pierson says. (Photo provided)

First, a binder, which is what the pigment adheres to in order to stay on a board, is created. The binder consists of egg yolk mixed with an equal part of water. This is mixed with the paint pigment and a few drops of water, creating the egg tempera medium with which icons are traditionally painted.

Next, guiding lines are traced into a gesso-covered wooden board and then engraved with a tool. Then, paint is added, layer by layer, beginning with dark colors and finishing with lighter colors. “It is as though the iconographer begins with darkness and death, and ends with light and resurrection,” Hart said.

The final stage is writing the saint’s name; then the icon is blessed by a priest and venerated. The working time varies, but it is a very long process, taking up to a year.

Revealing a Presence

The act of painting is something Pierson discovered she needs for her life to flourish — “essential,” even.

With icon painting, it “combines art and the vertical connection to God,” Pierson said.

And the connection to God is experienced deeply throughout the painting journey.“There is a journey — there’s a time you feel discouraged or bored. Even though you don’t feel it, you live by faith, trusting what you do has meaning and will bear fruit,” Pierson said. “With iconography, there is a Presence.”

“This whole painting journey teaches you about yourself, it takes patience — it takes time. You cannot finish an icon painting in a few hours. You have to trust the process. You have to trust someone else is inspiring you, even though it might not perfect. It’s all very like our spiritual life. It teaches us all that in a very practical way,” she added.