PUYALLUP – Last fall, three teenagers from All Saints Parish in Puyallup met weekly in parishioner George Josten’s garage studio, toiling for about a month to bring a portrait of St. Josephine Bakhita to life.
The 88-year-old Josten mixed oil pants for the trio. Then, under his tutelage, the girls painted over their chalk sketches of the saint, filling in her robes with blue, her skin with bronze.
Making the icon-style portrait of the patron saint of human trafficking victims for a parish presentation “was a spiritual experience, honoring this person,” said Sophie Wetzel, an eighth-grader at All Saints School.
Now hanging in the sanctuary of All Saints Parish in Puyallup, St. Josephine joins 39 other depictions of saints — all of them 6 feet tall — the fruits of a collaborative project of parishioners and local community members.
‘A teacher at heart’
Begun in 2004, the project was the brainchild of Josten, a Wisconsin native who has done general and decorative painting in many churches over the years. After moving to Puyallup, he was introduced to icons by a friend, the pastor of a Russian Orthodox church in nearby Wilkeson.
Josten painted an icon-style portrait of St. George and hung it up at All Saints Church as an example of what he envisioned. Father Richard “Woody” McCallister, then pastor of All Saints, gave his approval for the project, and Josten shared the concept with parishioners and artists he knew in the community.
Soon the idea took off. “Suggest painting a full-size saint to an artist, to be hung in a church, and you have his attention,” Josten said.
He clarifies that these portraits are not created in the true icon tradition — “There’s a whole process that goes into that,” Josten said. But they do include many elements of icon writing, such as using gold paint for the background, symbolizing that the person depicted is in heaven.
Josten donates the panels provided to each artist, and applies the first coat of gold paint. Most artists work on the paintings on their own, but if they need assistance, Josten helps. “I do some touch-up work and they don’t seem to mind,” he said. When the portrait is done, Josten applies the final coat of gold. For uniformity, he letters the name of the saint and adds the saint’s emblem or symbol.
“George is a teacher at heart,” said Paula Schmitz, All Saints’ pastoral assistant of liturgy and music.
Meghan Tate, left, and Cameo Kaipainen reveal their completed portrait of St. Josephine Bakhita, patron saint of human trafficking victims. Tate, Kaipainen and Sophie Wetzel painted the portrait under the guidance of George Josten, right. Photo: Carmen Bryant
For the St. Josephine portrait, Josten encouraged the teenagers to include the chains that once bound the saint in slavery. “We were mainly trying to get across her freedom from slavery, with her hands close to her heart, and chains on her hands,” said Cameo Kaipainen, a high school freshman who worked on the painting.
When the portrait was done, “it was amazing to see her,” said fellow artist Meghan Tate, an All Saints eighth-grader.
One of Josten’s daughters and two of his grandchildren have painted saints, and Schmitz has painted two: St. Gerald of Mayo for Father Jerry Burns’ celebration Mass after his 2009 ordination and St. Richard of Chichester, Father McCallister’s patron saint.
But not all of the artists are parishioners or even Catholic. A woman married to a Lutheran minister painted St. Clare, and a non-Catholic woman at the nearby senior center painted Pope St. John Paul II, Josten said. “Practically everyone at the senior center has painted one,” he joked.
Communion of saints
Although Josten might say he began the project because the church building needed color, “I would say that at age 74, George began this in gratitude to God for a life filled with art and beauty,” said Carmen Bryant, pastoral assistant for youth and young adult ministry.
The paintings of saints have done more than add beauty and color to the sanctuary.
The project is a chance to witness to others outside the parish, Schmitz said. When community members come in to see the art displayed in the sanctuary, “it’s an opportunity to look and ask questions,” she said. “Maybe they’ll leave with a feeling of, ‘There’s something more here.’”
After a painting is finished and hung, Father Michael Radermacher, All Saints’ pastor, uses his Sunday homily to share that saint’s life and faith with the congregation.
Sometimes a specific saint is requested. Last year, for instance, Father Radermacher asked for a depiction of Sts. Louis and Zelie Martin, parents of a Visitation sister and four Carmelite nuns, including St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
“He wanted to focus on the importance of family and to remind us that vocations begin in the family,” Bryant said. She asked two faith formation students to paint the couple, and Josten guided them through the process.
The portraits of saints have become an integral part of the parish, reflecting the diversity of the faith, according to Schmitz. During Lent, when the saints are taken down to create a more sparsely decorated worship environment, they are missed. “Without them the church feels empty. They belong there,” Kaipainen said.
When Josten’s son, Peter, rehangs the portraits on the walls of All Saints Church on Holy Saturday, they are usually reorganized — to feature new paintings, emphasize certain saints or simply rearrange colors, Schmitz said.
Josten’s goal is for more saints to be painted by parishioners and the community. “I don’t know how much longer I’ll be around, but I hope it keeps going,” Josten said. “We are All Saints, after all.”