As the October 11 canonization of Fr. Damien de Veuster approaches, an art teacher is leading a small group from Hawaii to Rome to present Pope Benedict XVI with a portrait of the saint painted by an artist paralyzed by Lou Gehrig’s Disease, also known as ALS.
Fr. Damien, a hero to Hawaiians, ministered to a major leper colony on Molokai where he contracted and eventually succumbed to leprosy in the late nineteenth century.
The late artist Peggy Chun had created the artwork with the help of schoolchildren at Holy Trinity School in Honolulu. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) had affected her to the point where she could only move her eyes.
Shelly Mecum, an art teacher at the school and a friend of Peggy, spoke with CNA from Rome in a Thursday phone interview about the portrait and its creator.
She described Peggy as an “invincible artist” who wouldn’t let ALS stop her from creating.
“When she couldn’t paint with her left hand, she used her right. When she couldn’t paint with her right, she used her mouth.”
According to Mecum, ALS completely “entombs” its victims.
“That’s what Peggy said it felt like, being buried alive in your own body.”
Despite her crippling symptoms, which led to her death on Nov. 19, 2008, Peggy used an ERICA eye response computer to communicate. She also used a device that would read her brainwaves.
“She was the first brainwave artist on the planet,” Mecum told CNA.
Peggy painted her portrait of Fr. Damien, titled “The Damien,” by directing others. She trained her apprentices in her brushstroke “just like Renaissance artists.” The work is part painting and part mosaic.
She spent 18 months giving directions week by week to paint the 50,000 quarter-inch squares that would be used in the eight-foot by four-foot painting.
She was assisted by 142 children from Holy Trinity school over a period of 18 months. The students, who ranged in age from 5 to 13, understood themselves as “Peggy’s hands.”
“Peggy completely composed this painting,” Mecum explained, saying she chose the posture of the saint based upon photographs. He is in a posture of blessing and is depicted half in shadow to represent the “darkness” of faith.
The artist also conceived the idea of placing handprints rising up from below his image as if in supplication.
In the portrait the figure of Bl. Damien is holding the handprint of Peggy herself, while the other handprints are from her family and her caregivers. The island of Molokai is in background.
Mecum explained that Peggy wanted the painting to change from left to right from starry night to the brightness of day to represent the hope that God was extending.
The back of the painting bears 142 handprints by the students in place of their signatures. Mecum added that the children who assisted Peggy “put all their healing and all their love into those squares of water paper.”
The saint is shown holding a rosary in his hand. Mecum told CNA that the mosaic squares used to depict the rosary were painted in colors that Peggy did not own.
When Mecum told Peggy the squares had just showed up in the classroom, she replied “Heaven is painting.”
“Then we knew we were going to complete this painting,” Mecum said.
“She really wondered if this painting was planted in her heart when she was a little girl,” Mecum said of Peggy, explaining that as a child the future artist saw a mosaic of the saint during a yearlong European tour with her parents.
“At that time, it was frozen in her heart and forevermore after that she thought it was such a dignified way to present a saint.”
Pope Benedict XVI will be given the painting in an Oct. 14 audience with Mecum, fellow teacher Christine Matsukawa, and two students. The group will also attend the canonization of Fr. Damien.
Mecum credited the Holy Spirit with inspiring the trip. When the school’s students wondered what would happen to the painting when it was finished, Matsukawa said “out of the blue” that it would be given to the Pope.
Mecum then went to Peggy with the idea.
“Peggy, would you like the painting to be given to the Pope?” she asked.
After a long pause, Peggy started to cry. This caused Mecum to wonder if she did not want to give the painting away.
Then Peggy spelled out in reply the phrase: “That would be the greatest honor of my life – Yes!”
The provincial of Fr. Damien’s order said he thought there could be no more magnificent and appropriate gift.
“I made a really serious promise that I would bring Peggy and find a way to present her painting to the Pope,” Mecum told CNA.
Though Peggy died before she could go to Rome, her friends’ prayers for help in their travels were “so soundly answered” three weeks after their planning began.
“We petitioned the Virgin Mary to secure transportation and tickets, and within weeks we had secured transportation,” Mecum said.
Delta Airlines donated tickets, while Best Western provided hotel accommodations.
Mecum reported that Denver-based philanthropist John Saeman, whom she called “one of our big heroes,” helped secure a papal audience through his contacts with Vatican officials. The audience will take place after Wednesday’s General Audience.
Two children, Lorrin Baptista and Mark Giron, were chosen to represent Holy Trinity School.
Lorrin met Peggy, Mecum said, and had to study the “courage” of Fr. Damien. She was inspired to convert to Catholicism and chose Damien as her patron.
Mark Giron had come to the school after Peggy had died and didn’t help with the painting. However, he learned of her work and felt a “burning desire” to go to Rome.
The two students are “really awed” to be participating in the audience and the canonization, Mecum told CNA.
Peggy Chun’s website, which sells prints of her paintings, is located at http://PeggyChun.com