Lenten mural tradition lives on at Regina Catholic Education Center

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John Demory, art instructor at Regina Catholic Education Center in Iowa City, helps seniors paint a Lenten mural last month.

By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

IOWA CITY — Each year, seniors at Regina Catholic Education Center look forward to painting a Lenten mural in the gym during the Ash Wednesday service.

“While it’s happening, they feel special knowing that everyone is watching their talent come to life,” said art instructor John Demory. “I’ve had many former students tell me how painting the Ash Wednesday mural is a great memory for them. …Younger students watching the mural unfold talk about how they will get to paint it someday.” 

The tradition began about 20 years ago with “a 2’x5’ canvas resting on a chair, and about five members of the Art Club working on it,” Demory said. By the third or fourth year, it evolved into a senior project, “something special for their last year.” The mural grew in size through the years, eventually spanning four 8’x4’ sheets of plywood.

Demory designs the murals with input from Campus Minister Shelly Conlon. He lays out the mural with white pencil on black panels and breaks the image down into separate “color-by-number” shapes. During the Ash Wednesday service, seniors stand up and leave the bleachers, approaching the panels with numbered cups of paint in hand to correspond with the paint-by-number mural. The seniors rotate in shifts.

“The prayer service goes on with speakers, music and prayer, and the mural is just kind of in the background for it all.” The mural generally takes about 45 minutes to an hour to complete, with the final step being the correct placement of the panels. The finished mural is displayed near the cafeteria entrance through Lent. Past murals are displayed in a hallway of the junior/senior high school.

“I love this tradition because it’s another way to infuse art into other areas in our school. I love how ‘within an hour’ everyone gets to see elements of our faith come to life through our talented students,” Demory said.

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Past designs have included Christ laying limp in the giant hands of God, Christ being helped up while falling with the cross on his back, and Christ with a staff tending to the sheep.

The most meaningful design for Demory emerged during a year that a staff member died of cancer. “He was too young — 29 or 30. He fought long and hard. (Conlon and I) came up with an idea: ‘I can do all things through he who strengthens me.’” The mural depicted the teacher — in period clothing — being hugged and comforted by Jesus.

This year’s design is a pandemic-related theme, drawing on the idea that students and staff have had to learn quickly how to adapt to the emergence of COVID-19. “Obviously we’ve had to endure some big changes this year. Our faculty has worked hard doing the best they can, and the students have had to be flexible with all of the new policies and procedures. So, the mural depicts Christ, in an outdoor setting, a small child on his lap. He is surrounded by children and a couple of adults all paying close attention to his words. It’s obvious that he is teaching them.  The lettering at the top left says: ‘And He began to teach them…’ (Matthew 5:2.)”

The mural painting process, too, had to be adapted due to the ongoing pandemic. “Obviously we couldn’t have everyone together in the gym and we really weren’t sure we were going to do a mural,” Demory said. “We eventually decided on a smaller mural, 2 4’x8’ panels. We put the panels in the front lobby and, beginning on Ash Wednesday, seniors painted in small groups during their Theology class period.” This process took about a week. It “wasn’t the grand presentation it usually is,” but it was nice to see students stop to watch the progress as they walked to and from class.

Shane Schemmel, communications and marketing coordinator for Regina, said the Lenten mural is “very beloved by the entire Regina community and we were so glad they were able to make it work this year.”


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