Artist helps draw children to the divine at St. Michael’s in Olympia

  • Written by Morningstar Stevenson
  • Published in Local
The Cenacle, with figures of Jesus and the Apostles painted by Carrie Cortes-Monroy, is used to teach children about the Last Supper and the origins of the Eucharist. Cortes-Monroy is a catechist in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program at St. Michael Parish in Olympia. Photo: Courtesy Carrie Cortes-Monroy The Cenacle, with figures of Jesus and the Apostles painted by Carrie Cortes-Monroy, is used to teach children about the Last Supper and the origins of the Eucharist. Cortes-Monroy is a catechist in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program at St. Michael Parish in Olympia. Photo: Courtesy Carrie Cortes-Monroy

OLYMPIA – When her daughter was preparing for first Communion at St. Michael Parish, Carrie Cortes-Monroy wanted to make a deeper commitment to her faith. So she signed up for a parish group studying Sofia Cavalletti’s book Ways to Nurture the Relationship with God, never guessing the impact that book would have.

It led to Cortes-Monroy using her artistic talents as the materials and environment coordinator for the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program at St. Michael’s. CGS, as it is known, is a hands-on, Montessori-like faith formation program developed by Cavalletti for children ages 3–12.

“True to the mustard-seed nature of this work,” Cortes-Monroy said, “I’m now in my seventh year. Even though it’s small, it grows to something great.”

CGS St Michael OlympiaCarrie Cortes-Monroy works with children at St. Michael Parish in Olympia as they study The Gifts, a historical timeline of the kingdom of God. Photo: Courtesy Carrie Cortes-Monroy

Whether it’s drawing, painting, sculpting, woodworking or sewing, Cortes-Monroy has created many of the items used in the atrium, the CGS term for the faith formation classroom.

A mostly self-taught artist, Cortes-Monroy said her talent and work ethic are gifts from her family. “They were always creating, building, doing,” she said.

CGS St Michael Olympia
Carrie Cortes-Monroy carved this work, The Annunciation to Mary, to be used by children ages 3–6 in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd faith formation program at St. Michael Parish in Olympia. Photo: Morningstar Stevenson

Encountering the divine

In the CGS program — divided into three levels by age — the works that Cortes-Monroy brings to the atrium as an artist and catechist help the children meditate on Scripture.

“Hopefully, the children, in seeing something of beauty, in some way are drawn to the divine,” Cortes-Monroy said.

And it’s important that the catechist make the materials, contemplating God in the process, she added. Working in silence in her home studio, Cortes-Monroy tends to lose sense of time. “I’ve kind of encountered the divine somehow in the eternal and timelessness because I’m concentrating,” she said.

Often while copying Scripture, Cortes-Monroy ends up memorizing it; then “the holy word is living within me and it can spring up for me when I need it,” she said.

Cortes-Monroy is “a deeply contemplative person who pays attention to God’s word in her life,” said Joann Terranova, a CGS volunteer and formation leader at St. Michael’s.

‘Enthusiasm and wonder of a child’

As a volunteer catechist, Cortes-Monroy can observe how the children interact with the items she has created, which helps her choose appropriate materials for new items. Figures that are too toy-like may not be appropriate if children tend to play with them. And Cortes-Monroy said human or angelic figures without faces have proven worrisome to some children.

CGS St Michael Olympia
Carrie Cortes-Monroy works in her home studio on The Adoration of the Magi, materials that will be used in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program at her parish, St. Michael in Olympia. Photo: Courtesy Carrie Cortes-Monroy

Mary Trotter, the parish’s steward for the CGS program, said Cortes-Monroy plans simple art activities, such as inviting the children to draw with charcoal, that help them explore their spirituality. “Carrie’s gift is she doesn’t hand out erasers,” Trotter said, teaching the children to “accept mistakes with grace.”

Cortes-Monroy has also helped adults develop confidence in their creations. She has led several workshops in bookmaking for St. Michael’s, and contributed her talents to the national CGS training that brought catechists from around the country to the archdiocesan retreat center in Federal Way in July 2017.

“She takes a very simple, humble approach as a catechist,” Trotter said. “Carrie approaches life with the enthusiasm and wonder of a child. That’s what we’re all called to do.”