Students ponder a reproduction of “Agnus Dei” by Francisco de Zubarán in the new art gallery at St. Jerome School, Oconomowoc. (Submitted photo)

In his 1999 “Letter to Artists,” St. John Paul II wrote that “humanity in every age … looks to works of art to shed light upon its path and its destiny.”

It’s a sentiment that Teri Chudy, Principal of St. Jerome School, Oconomowoc, embraces wholeheartedly. She saw it in action when she taught fifth grade as a substitute a few months ago. That day’s lesson plan called for a Scripture study of the Lamb of God, so Chudy went to the Smartboard and brought up an image of Baroque artist Francisco de Zubarán’s “Agnus Dei,” which vividly depicts a ram reposing on a beam of wood, its hooves bound.

She did not tell the students what the name of the painting was, but asked them to share their thoughts.

“All of these ideas were just coming out of the kids,” said Chudy. “One of the girls observed that in the lamb’s legs, she saw the shape of a heart — that was something I didn’t even see before.

Others noticed the wood and remarked that it was evocative of the wooden cross and the wooden manger. “They came up with all of those observations on their own,” she said.

A reproduction of the “Agnus Dei” now hangs in St. Jerome’s entryway, one of a dozen pieces in the school’s new fine art gallery. The purchase of that painting, and 10 others in the gallery, was funded by a grant from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s GIFTS Grant program.

Established in 2019, Grant Initiatives for Today’s Students is funded through the annual Archbishop’s Catholic Schools Dinner. Nearly 150 grants totaling $1.05 million have been awarded in four areas: Catholic identity, development and marketing, education innovation and seed money for project initiation.

The idea for the gallery was first conceived almost two years ago, when Chudy attended a conference for Catholic educators where she was introduced to Benedictus Art, a company that specializes in museum-quality reproductions of artistic masterpieces for churches and schools.

She researched the company and saw a video of a school in New Mexico that had installed a gallery of classical artwork from Benedictus Art.

“The way that the students in this video and parents spoke about it was very inspiring,” she said. “At that moment I said, ‘I have to do this for St. Jerome. I have to find a way to make this happen. I don’t know how that’s going to happen, but we have to find a way to do this.’”

Museum-quality art prints don’t come cheaply — each piece costs between $700 and $1,000. Chudy and a friend who was also attending the conference both entered a drawing for a free piece of art. Chudy’s friend ended up winning a reproduction of Rembrandt’s “The Prodigal Son.”

“She turned to me and said, ‘This is your first piece for your art gallery,’” said Chudy.

The painting found a home in Chudy’s office while she tried to find ways to get the gallery funded. A generous parishioner donated money for the purchase of a second piece, but other leads for funding were dead ends.

Then Chudy saw the GIFTS Grant applications. “I thought, ‘You know what? I’m just going to go for it. I’m going to write my case of what this does for kids, how (art) reaches them at a deep level and, and exposes them to beauty,’” she said.

With the GIFTS Grant money, the school was able to purchase 12 reproduction paintings, including works by Raphael, Rembrandt and Van Gogh, to name just a few.

One piece by John Jay Audubon depicting a sandhill crane is especially beloved by students and staff.

“We have sandhill cranes that are here all the time, and they actually walk right up to the windows and look in at the kids,” said Chudy.

Another piece, “The Angelus” by Jean-Francois Millet, is hung right next to the cafeteria.

“We pause and we pray the Angelus together at noon (as a school), so that’s the last thing they see before they go into the cafeteria,” said Chudy.

“I feel it is important to make works of art like these accessible to all students, even my kinders,” said K5 teacher Michele Salmins. “No one is too young (to be) exposed to beautiful works of art, even if it is to just look and ponder. I equate this to exposing children to good pieces of literature; it is my job to help broaden their minds to more than just what society shows them on a daily basis.”

St. Jerome art instructor Christine Owens said the addition of the gallery brings “cohesion” to the main atrium space.

“By that, I mean the architecture of the atrium space (the main display area) and the installation of the art work have become visually united,” Owens said. “The atrium is a main entry portal to the school, so it is a place of public gathering. The installation of the colorful subject matter of the art pieces reflects those aspects of welcoming, gathering, praying and reflecting.”

Owens said she hopes to incorporate the pieces in the gallery into her art curriculum, both in terms of art history instruction and by utilizing them as inspiration.

The museum quality of the art is certainly up to snuff for such a purpose.

“You can see the brush strokes. It looks like the real painting. I’ve had people say, ‘When do we have to give these back?’” said Chudy. “I said, ‘Well, we don’t. They’re ours now.’”