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Father Edward Catich’s “Theophora” is one of many pieces of Christmas artwork on display in the Morrissey Gallery on the St. Ambrose University campus in Davenport. The piece caused controversy in 1950 when it was displayed at a New York City museum because the artwork depicts an interracial family.

By Anne Marie Amacher

DAVENPORT — The story of Christmas is told through the artwork of the late Father Edward Catich in the Galvin Fine Arts Center of St. Ambrose University.

“Faith Journey Through Art: Exploring Father Catich through Prayer and Christmas Cards” is on display in the Morrissey Gallery of the fine arts building through Jan. 1. The exhibit displays five decades of art Fr. Catich created using various media.

“This is Christmas told through Fr. Catich’s eyes,” said Eileen Eitrheim, director of marketing for Galvin Fine Arts Center and curator of the Morrissey Gallery.

Eitrheim said she and the late St. Ambrose art professor John Schmits, a Fr. Catich protégé, had a brainstorm a number of years ago after going through cabinets and finding “tons of Christmas artwork” by Fr. Catich. She and Schmits began working on the collection. When Schmits became sick and later passed away, Heather Lovewell, curator of the Catich Gallery, stepped in.

“It took a lot of time to reduce the collection down to what fit into the display cases in the lobby of the building,” Eitrheim said. The collection includes off-set lithography, calligraphy, a mosaic, slate, stained glass and a variety of paintings.

Eitrheim noted that Fr. Catich “never let his students see his sketch books.” He sketched his ideas, remolded them and put them on vellum (a type of tissue-thin paper). From there he continued to develop his ideas. Some of his vellum and other sketch work of Christmas art are in the display.

Also included are depictions of the Holy Family, the flight to Egypt, Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus, the three wise men, angels, musical instruments, and Christmas stationery and cards. Instruments that Fr. Catich played are in the display, along with a Bible he received from Bishop Henry Rohlman in 1942.

The collection includes the artwork titled “Theophora,” which stirred controversy when it was submitted to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1950, Eitrheim said. The oil painting depicts Mary with a black child Jesus sitting on her lap. Jesus holds a green apple, referencing his being the “new Adam.” The artwork was controversial because it depicted an interracial family, and it is said to have drawn a warning letter from the Vatican to the Diocese of Davenport. Eitrheim said letters in the 1960s between Fr. Catich, the diocese and the Vatican went back and forth to not cause controversy again.

In an issue of “Catholic Art Quarterly” in 1945, Fr. Catich talked about making Christmas cards:

“Ever since my apprenticeship as a sign-painter I have been making Christmas cards, not only for myself, but for others. Christmas cards have been very good to me for I recall three years’ tuition at art school was paid for out of my Christmas-card revenue.

“My early notions of designing Christmas cards were not clear for I remember that I made any design suggested by the client — even such things as family-silhouettes, front porches, musicians, etc.

“My designing was clarified considerably by Father John Laffey of Mooseheart, Ill., who admonished me for secularizing a sacred concept. In effect he said, ‘Few love the stable and the straw which Christ chose for himself on that first night.’

“This cogent thought made me aware that the only correct Christmas-card designs are those designs which deal directly with the Holy Nativity. Since then I have made only Christian Christmas cards.”

The timing of the exhibit is meant to not only celebrate Christmas, but to coincide with the university’s annual children’s musical in early December. “We have close to 7,000 children come through here for the musical,” Eitrheim said.

Father Edward Catich biography

Father Edward Catich and his twin brother Vincent were born in Stevensville, Mont., in 1906. The family later moved to Butte, Mont.

Their mother died when the twins were 3 and his father returned to his homeland, Croatia, where he brought back a new bride. The father died when Fr. Catich was 11, followed by his step-mom.

An older brother and sister were sent to California. The Catich twins were sent to Mooseheart Orphanage in Aurora, Ill. After graduating from high school, Fr. Catich traveled with a band and eventually moved to Chicago in 1926 where he attended classes at the Chicago Art Institute.

In 1931 he moved to Davenport and enrolled in St. Ambrose College. He graduated in 1934 and from the University of Iowa the next year.

He then entered studies for the priesthood at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome in 1935 and was ordained Dec. 8, 1938, in Rome.

Upon returning to Davenport, Fr. Catich began teaching art and founded St. Ambrose’s art department.

Over the years Fr. Catich traveled to Europe for research, established his own Catfish Press, was a consultant for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and published dozens of articles and books.

He died April 14, 1979, in his studio at St. Ambrose of natural causes. He was 73.

The Catich Collection is online through St. Ambrose at http://catich.sau.edu/ or visit the school’s website at www.sau.edu and click on A-Z Index, then Catich Collection Digital Archives.

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