Fr. John Burns blesses the new paintings at St. Mary Mother of God Parish in Menomonee Falls. (Submitted photo)

While Fr. John Burns, former pastor of St. Mary Mother of God Parish in Menomonee Falls, was praying during his Holy Hour on Nov. 18, 2016, he had the idea of some artwork for the sanctuary.

“Out of prayer, the thought of commissioning artwork blossomed in my heart; it wouldn’t leave me alone” said Fr. Burns. “Finally, one day I decided to place it in our Lady’s hands. I said, ‘Mary if you want this then please make this happen.’ On the back of a little piece of paper I wrote ‘Please mama provide all the money we need to have two large paintings to glorify the Visitation and the Annunciation, as well as two small paintings to glorify the dream of Joseph and Joseph teaching Jesus in the workshop. I beg you this for the sanctification of St. Mary Parish.’ I then placed that card under the statue of Mary.”

After turning the idea for the artwork over to Our Lady, in just 39 days she provided all the funds necessary to commission an artist to paint two large images glorifying the Visitation and the Annunciation, as well as two small paintings to glorify the dream of Joseph and Joseph’s teaching Jesus in his workshop.

Within the first six days, Fr. Burns received a check for $25,000 from a parishioner who wanted to help the parish however needed. Several days after that, a man preparing for marriage gave a $5,000 gift to the parish and, when learning about the paintings, gave another $5,000. Two and a half weeks later, the parish received a check for $18,500 and this continued until the entire amount was raised.

On Nov. 9, nearly four years later, the parish celebrated with a special Mass and the blessing of the images. Henry Wingate, the commissioned artist, spoke briefly before the Mass.

According to Danielle DeMeuse, St. Mary Parish Choir Director, the idea for using the artist came from a couple of longtime parishioners following a two-year search.

“They visited their granddaughter in Virginia a number of years ago,” DeMeuse said. “During their visit, they attended Mass at St. John Parish in Front Royal, Virginia, where Mr. Wingate painted a series of four paintings depicting the life of St. John the Baptist. It was then that they were captivated by his artwork and suggested upon their arrival home that we work with Mr. Wingate.”

A former naval pilot, Wingate began his training as a painter when he was 28 years old. He moved to Boston to train with Paul Ingbretson and with an Italian artist. He currently lives in Madison, Virginia, where he has a studio.

Wingate has won numerous awards, including first prize in the American Society of Portrait Artists 2000 competition, the Gold Medal of Honor at the 2003 Hudson Valley Art Association annual exhibition, and the Best Painting from Life Award of the National Oil and Acrylic Painters’ Society in 2003. His work was featured in the 2006 issue of Portrait Highlights and as the cover article in the November 2002 issue of American Artist.

While Fr. Burns had the initial vision for the paintings, producing the images themselves was a collaborative effort between Wingate and the artwork committee, including Msgr. Ross Shecterle and Fr. Andrew Linn, discussing various aspects of the paintings throughout the process, such as models, poses and facial expressions.

“We are so grateful to Mr. Wingate for his beautiful paintings that will bless our parish community for many generations to come and we look forward to the installation of two smaller commissioned paintings of St. Joseph in 2021,” said DeMeuse.

The paintings are each 5 feet wide by 7 feet, 3 inches tall. The frames were custom-made by a woodworker in Virginia named Randy Dodson that Wingate knew and worked with previously. The shape of the frames were made to mimic the arch around the crucifix in the sanctuary.

The prospect of framing the paintings was a bit tricky as they needed to make sure the frames fit the paintings exactly, said DeMeuse.

“That was one of the reasons we decided to have the frames made by someone local to Mr. Wingate, so the two of them could collaborate together on details and sizing,” she said, “Then the framed paintings were transported to Menomonee Falls in a U-Haul truck and installed by a local art and framing company.”

DeMeuse said the parish is pleased with the paintings and they have added beauty to the sanctuary and serve as a fitting tribute to the patroness of their parish, Mary Mother of God.

“Parishioners have been overjoyed to see the paintings. It is hard to believe they are a permanent part of the church now,” she said. “It is beautiful to think of all the generations that will encounter these images and meditate on the first two Joyful Mysteries they depict: The Annunciation and The Visitation.”

Fr. Burns agreed and returned to the parish last month to concelebrate the Mass and offer a blessing along with Msgr. Shecterle.

“The two images complement each other” said Fr. Burns. “Contemplation on one side and activity in the order of charity on the other. That is what should be the fruit of worship. We should always come to Mass and contemplate the tremendous gift that we are invited into, and then go out and carry that gift to love and serve.”