A Story of Transformation with Sister Celeste Mokrzycki SSJ

A Story of Transformation - by Sister Celeste Mokrzycki SSJ

The Body of Christ, a painting about transformation by Sister Celeste Mokrzycki SSJ, tells the story of St. Patrick’s Pro-Cathedral in Newark, NJ from its beginning in 1850 as a parish of Irish Americans to today, a community primarily of immigrants from Central and South America. The painting was commissioned by Fr. Camilo Cruz, the newly missioned parish rector.

The painting is the result of a collaboration between two immigrants—Sister Celeste Mokrzycki from Poland and Fr. Camilo from Colombia. Unlike most of St. Patrick’s immigrant parishioners, Fr. Camilo’s immigration experience was one of privilege. “I came as an immigrant in totally different circumstances,” said Fr. Camilo. “I arrived in the U.S. at the airport five minutes from here. I came to live and study here; I am from a middle-class family, went to a private school, and never used public transportation.” Until his ministry at St. Patrick’s, Fr. Camilo lived and worked in middle-class Anglo communities. Before coming to Newark, Fr. Camilo’s only experience serving persons who are poor and marginalized included weekly hour-long visits to a prison and mission trips to El Salvador and Haiti, which were much different from his new ministry. “Here, it is not only day by day, Sunday after Sunday worshiping with these people, but also walking their journey. It’s not about language—it’s not enough to speak the language; it’s about learning the heart of the people. That’s something I am learning. I have been humbled by their experiences. These people have won my heart.”

Sister Celeste continued: “Camilo spoke about the immigrant experience—I am an immigrant. I came from Poland at the age of five. I did not have the same circumstance as some of our refugees coming into this country, but it’s dear to my heart. Like the immigrants here, I know what it feels like to leave your family in another country and to go to a country where you don’t speak the language; you don’t know the customs. You don’t know what your future is going to be like. I can certainly relate to that, which is one reason I got so excited and passionate about the project because that’s part of my story.”

Outlining the parameters of the painting, Fr. Camilo shared the must-haves: “I wanted something that integrated the spirit of St. Patrick’s from its beginning in 1850 to present day. On one side, I wanted the mountains that immigrants are coming from, and on the other side, the City of Newark. I wanted the Risen Christ coming out of the Church—a joyful Christ inviting everybody, bringing people in.” The painting would be divided into cultures that included Irish, African Americans, Asian Americans and Latin Americans.

Before Sister Celeste could begin painting, she had to do some research. “The biggest challenge for me, after the Christ figure, was how I, as a gringa, would paint something reflective of the Latin American experience. I did a lot of research on Latin American artists and paintings, including the use of color and the meaning of those colors. All of that was one challenge. The other challenge, which really excited me, was how I would bring my spirituality, the SSJ spirituality of today, into this painting. I have to be true to who I am as an artist at the same time. I was not just painting a Latin American piece that did not reflect my own beliefs, spirituality, and style. The other thing that I love is the sense of inclusivity, which is so Sister of Saint Joseph,” said Sister Celeste.

With the preliminary features of the piece figured out, it was time to determine the size. “Fr. Camilo pointed to a wall in the chapel and said, ‘I want it here. I hope this becomes a daily chapel, a place where people can come in and pray, and the painting would help their prayer, invite them to
prayer.’ ” The finished size is 60″ x 70″. It features 31 figures and took approximately 200 hours to paint.

Sister Celeste shared: “What I loved about Camilo’s vision was his desire for a joyful Christ. The Christ in this painting is moving, not static. His arms are outstretched, further than anatomically correct. He is also a larger figure. Isn’t Christ larger than life in our lives and in the actions of the world? He is a Christ who unifies, who is active and visible in our lives. The Holy Spirit pours light upon everyone irrespective of who they are, where they came from, or what their stories are. The symbols at the bottom express the people’s connection to Earth, the world, and creation, which resonated with me—who I was and who we are as a people, who we are as a Church. The symbols at the bottom also serve to depict who we are, our identity, our roots. They come from the cultures, from the past—our ancestors. We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. Most of the symbols are Latin American; however, to honor the Irish roots in this parish, there is the Celtic symbol.

To honor the African cultures also present here is an Adrinka symbol for faith. We have the fish, the chalice, and the cup, which are symbolic in our religion and the Jewish religion. I also tucked in a heart that honors the Sisters of Saint Joseph because we are the congregation of the great love of God. I included the turtle symbol to represent the slowness of our dream and our vision of what we would love for Christ to do in our world. It’s in process, but it’s taking time. For me, the turtle is a symbol of the patience that we need. The donkey is very symbolic in the life of Christ, carrying him to his destination. The water in the back of the painting represents the Rio Grande. It touches on the experiences of the refugees on the border and the complexity of that issue. And, again, the light permeates all. We have the man in the mauve hat caught in himself; he’s not so much in the group. To me, he represents persons who may not know exactly where God is for them yet, but they’re there. They are seeking, and he’s looking downward.”

Sister Celeste shared: “This painting is not only about welcome; it is about relationships—relationships that are not only important as a parish but with one another and relationships that are important to me. When I looked at the finished work, I was struck by how many mothers and children were in the painting. The painting also reflects some of the issues that we are facing today and I thought, where do I want Christ to bring unity? Not only in Newark but in what I call the larger Church.

I love doing a painting because it holds meaning in different ways to different people. This painting is in the present time. We have the Black Lives Matter-inspired image, and we have depicted homelessness. Charlene told me the story about the homeless person who sleeps right outside her stoop whom she almost must climb over or ask him to move. So, he’s included in that painting because her story touched me. And obviously, we see the refugees coming. We show the charismatic part of the Church. We depict the Communion of Saints—the people who have come before us.

Some of the elements that I emphasized were relationships of mothers and children. I wanted it timely and historical. If you notice over in the right corner, the man is wearing a mask. Some figures aren’t looking at Christ because they find Jesus in themselves through their own experiences with their own stories or in relationship to each other. We have a woman embracing her child, who is reaching for her breast, for nourishment. She finds Jesus in loving that child, in loving that person given to her in her life. I love the little boy tugging on his mother’s pant leg. I thought about how often Jesus talked about the children—’Let them come to me’—and I wanted to honor that scriptural reference. If you notice, the light touches the feet of the homeless. As I was painting that, I was referencing for myself the last supper where we offer the service of washing the feet of others. In the painting, feet became somewhat important to me—some with shoes on and some without.”

Another beautiful thing is that the painting includes St. John’s, the other parish. It reflects the history of the Archdiocese of Newark. St. John’s was the first parish of the state of New Jersey and the first parish of the diocese of Newark. St. Patrick’s is the mother church—the first cathedral in 1850.

“I completed the painting right before the Feast of Corpus Christi—the Feast of the Body of Christ. I thought, how powerful was that? The Feast of Corpus Christi is a significant day for me. It was when I left Poland for life in America. It was the day I last visited Poland,” said Sister Celeste.
The Feast is also a major celebration in Colombia. Fr. Camilo shared: “The festivities are beautiful and last a whole week. Farmers create these arches with the fruits of the Earth. The Blessed Sacrament is celebrated with a procession that we see in this painting. Everyone is in procession; even the homeless person lying on the street is transformation. It is transitional. Everything in our faith and our lives is transitional. I often say that in funerals, my grandmother always said, ‘Once you are born, you are going to die. There is a new beginning in our lives. We constantly evolve.’ Think about our lives, our own experiences, our vocations. Everyone’s talking about the top of the mountain, and they get there, and there is a higher one or a whole valley that you can really observe, and there are so many things to plan still.

This painting is an invitation to transformation—we are called to be transformed as a Church. We are called to be transformed as a people. I think we are afraid to be transformed. We want to keep everything, just pulling the strings. It’s not going to happen. Look at the universe. Where is it going now? A global pandemic has transformed us in ways we cannot even imagine. We haven’t even seen it yet. I think transformation and transition are big words for this painting. We are called to action, to be transformed by Christ and the body of Christ.”