For three decades of his life, Arturo Ysmael made life comfortable for his clients by creating beautiful living spaces.

Salvatorian Fr. Arturo Ysmael poses in the chapel he redesigned in the Salvatorian provincial house. He created an image of plaster that shows the three persons of God: God the father is the hand, holding his Son with the Holy Spirit as a dove behind them.Often working for the rich and famous – including Saudi Arabian sheiks – he spared no expense as he dazzled them with color combinations, artwork, furniture, and design all carefully coordinated to produce stunning results.

His life was focused on material goods and comforts with high-end projects where the price tag was no concern.

For one project, he designed an atrium for a sheik with an inner court open to the elements with imported crystal from Germany set on black granite with a glass dome over which created a kaleidoscope effect. For another Saudi princess who wanted to wake up feeling like Ariel the mermaid, he created a conch shell made of fiberglass, lined with memory foam and silk that would open and close.

The way the former interior designer looks at his life now, as Salvatorian Fr. Arturo Ysmael, he’s still creating comfortable living spaces for his people, but spaces where they can be themselves.

Fr. Art, as he’s known to parishioners at Mother of Good Counsel Parish, Milwaukee, where he serves as associate pastor, was ordained a Salvatorian at age 64 on June 14 by Bishop Richard J. Sklba. Admittedly, he said during an interview with the Catholic Herald, his vocation was a long time coming. Had he listened to his mother nearly a half century ago, it would have happened much earlier.

The youngest of nine children born to Filipino parents in Cebu, Philippines, Fr. Art said his mother selected career paths for all of her children, and thanks to his parents’ hard work and encouragement, the family is comprised of an accountant, an engineer, two doctors, two nurses and a priest (not Fr. Art, but rather, his older brother.)

His mother, an uneducated woman who didn’t attend school beyond first or second grade, prayed and prayed that Fr. Art would follow in the footsteps of his brother and become a priest, too.

He recalls one day when she went to the altar on her knees praying for that, but Fr. Art would have none of it.The image of the Pantocratic Christ hangs on the wall of the chapel in the Salvatorian provincial house. (Catholic Herald photos by Maryangela Layman Román)
Instead, he earned a bachelor of arts in interior design and spent five years as a designer in Saudi Arabia, traveled around Asia as a buyer and, once he made it to the United States, managed several furniture stores.

“I spent most of my life thinking of life security,” he said, describing how he built his career in a way to earn enough money to be comfortable. “Yet, it turned out this security thing I was working for was so transient and not that fulfilling.”

In spite of the glamorous job where he was surrounded by beautiful material furnishings and wealth, Fr. Art longed for something more.

He went on a weeklong discernment retreat at a monastery with Trappist monks and remembers walking into the chapel early one morning.

“It was still dark and I went to the chapel and actually woke up ahead of the monks,” he said, recalling how he sat in front of the dimly lit tabernacle beneath an image of the icon Christ Pantocrater, which shows the two natures of God as fully human and fully God. He remembers conversing with the image.

Later that day, he said he told one of the monks that he believed he had a calling to religious life.

“I was 50 at the time and I said to him, ‘Is it going to be in your community as a monk?’” Fr. Art described. But the monk told him, “No, you are too opinionated,” and advised him to look for a society of active religious.

Fr. Art returned home and began his search, approaching numerous religious orders, but each time he was turned down because of his age. Few orders accept 50-year-old men.

“I almost gave up. It was the feast of Christ the King and I remember distinctly leaving church. I was with my sister and she asked, ‘Any luck?’ and I said, ‘No, I think I am going to give up.’”

But she told him about a place she had heard of in Wisconsin where they took late vocations. It turned out to be Sacred Heart School of Theology in Hales Corners.

He called, and instead of accepting him, they suggested he contact the Society of the Divine Savior.

Fr. Art did so, even though he had never heard of the order. He left a message and was surprised when almost immediately he had a return call from then-Salvatorian vocation director Fr. Joe Lubrano.

Fr. Lubrano invited him to visit the Salvatorian headquarters and the first thing that caught Fr. Art’s eye as he walked into the chapel at the provincial house was an image of Christ Pantocrater.

“’You again,’” Fr. Art recalls saying to the image on the wall. “’What are you trying to tell me?’” He said he sat in the small chapel, looking at the image, feeling that maybe he had found a spiritual home in the Salvatorians.

Giving up his glamorous lifestyle wasn’t as difficult as he expected.

“It was easy to get rid of the material stuff,” he said, explaining how he held a sale of his belongings open only to his clients. The most difficult good-bye, however, was to his 12-year-old Shih Tzu-Poodle mix who had to be put to sleep.

“I’m happy now and don’t regret my decision,” said Fr. Art. “ Every now and then I think it’s human to look back on all the good things, all the nice things I had, but when I put it in contrast to my satisfaction, my contentment of having found something more than material security, this is really more important.”

Fr. Art’s decision to become a priest surprised some of those closest to him, he admitted, describing one client who told him, “Don’t go; your talents will be wasted there.”

But he responded by telling her he plans to find way to utilize different talents by helping people draw closer to God.
His priest brother was also surprised when he learned of Fr. Art’s vocation.

“’Art, what happened?,’” he asked me. “He said, ‘Why of all placesin America where it’s very materialistic, very consumeristic? he asked me why I have turned more spiritual, more religious.”

Fr. Art doesn’t have a specific answer to that question, other than to say that his decision feels right.

As a priest, he’s also found a way to put his artistic talents to use within the parish.

For his ordination, he designed two floor-to-ceiling, 27-foot long, celebratory hand-painted banners which hung on either side of the altar. Not only did they help create a festive atmosphere in the church, but they represent the Good News of the Gospel that, according to Fr. Art, is for all humanity.

He said he designed the banners freehand, painting with fabric paint laden with silica. The project took him three weeks, working 17 to 18 hours a day.

According to Mother of Good Counsel parishioner, Donna Bieser, “They are just stunning, a real gift to the parish.”
He’s also redesigned the once dark, little chapel at the provincial house where he was first introduced to the Salvatorians. The chapel, located in what had formerly been the garage of the home, now boasts light colored walls, and an image of the hand of God made in plaster holding a crucifix as if to give the world his Son, with a dove with wings of the Holy Spirit spread behind it.

On the opposite wall, however, the Pantocratic Christ remains, for him, a symbol of the journey Fr. Art has traveled to the priesthood, and a reminder that as a designer, he is now working for Christ, teaching others about him and blessing their lives with his Good News.