Texas Catholics find a niche - in the ancient art of Russian icon-making
Their work is exquisite. Beautiful icons patterned after the ancient style,
life-size, rich in color and texture. The figures grace churches and convents
across the U.S., Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Pacific.
Professional artists? Nope. The work of an established firm specializing in
religious art? Negative. In fact, the "workshop" is the home of a working-class
Catholic family, the studio their dining room table. The "artists" are a small
group of housewives and mothers. And they give away their work absolutely free.
"We wanted to find an apostolate," says Martha Garza, a member of the group,
It all began in 1992 among a few
friends, housewives and mothers living in Houston.
"We had been getting together as a kind of loose-knit Legionaries of Christ
lay group," continues Mrs. Garza, the mother of five and the unofficial
spokesman for the ladies. "We don't have a priest or formal spiritual direction."
Then came a providential visit by a woman from Mexico. "She had just finished
taking a course in Mexico from a man who had learned his craft in Russia. She
had made only one small Virgin of Guadalupe."
The visitor, Pia Toedtli, lived in north Houston for two years before
returning to her native country. She
introduced the technique of icon making to Marilupe Represas, an engaging young
mother in the group. It was Marilupe who desperately wanted an image of Our Lady
for her parish church, then devoid of such.
"She went to the parish priest," explains Mrs. Garza, "and said, 'we're going
to make you this image of the Blessed Mother, we're going to put it in the
church for you, you won't have to lift a finger, we're going to have a party,
we're going to have a mariachi band, food and flowers, and you won't have to
worry about a thing because I will handle everything.'
"It turned out absolutely beautiful. Even the priest liked it."
From that modest beginning, they now meet at the Garzas' establishment, as
many as ten on any given Wednesday. No generation gap here, Their ages range
from early 30s to one woman, Wauneta Dineer, age 65.
To date the ladies have made more than thirty icons. Several are life-size
versions, about 54 inches high and forty inches wide. They don't sell the works.
They give them away "as long as they are put on public display."
The value of one of the larger icons runs into the thousands, and raises a
question: how are the projects financed?
One source of funding comes from the efforts of one member, Loretta Van
Westen, who sells Catholic children's videos for the California- based Creative
Communication Center. This and other small fundraisers cover the frame and
heavier items. But together
the group decided that they would pay from their own pockets for the various
inks, tools and dye that are used. The cost of transporting the items has so far
not been a factor.
"We've never had to pay for shipping," says Mrs. Garza. "The Blessed Mother
provides her own transportation."
Some destinations: a parish church in Vladivostok, Russia; a convent in
Madrid; a memorial to abortion victims in Baton Rouge; churches in England and
Hungary; Colombia and Mexico; Guam. And all of this by word of mouth, since the
group does absolutely no advertising.
With all the impressive work being done, the making of icons is still only a
part-time apostolate. While one maverick does hold down an outside job (as a
teacher at the local Catholic school), the rest spend their time as homemakers
and mothers. The four who make up the core of the group have 18 children among
them, all in the same age range.
"We took [the children] out of the church catechism classes because we
thought they weren't learning anything," says Mrs. Garza. "We teach them the new
Catechism of the Catholic
Church at home, splitting them up by age." Separate classes for boys and girls,
It is not hard to see why Our Lady of Guadalupe became the patron of the icon
makers. There is a decidedly Latin flavor in the group. While Mrs. Garza is from
Indiana, her husband hails from Mexico. Three of the others are from Latin
America, two with American husbands.
And now Pia and Marilupe, who started the Houston Catholic homemakers on
their apostolate, are using the Guadalupe icons to win back souls to the Church
in Mexico, where Protestant fundamentalism has made serious inroads in recent
years. They are making the icons and giving them to the poorest parishes in the
Not exactly the stuff of the brain trusts who devised NAFTA.
15214 Rose Cottage
Houston, TX 77069
Steven Terenzio, 40, teaches at St. Gabriel School in Stamford, CT and holds
an MA in Religious Studies from St. Joseph's Seminary, Yonkers, NY, the seminary of the New York Archdiocese.