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(Sursum Corda) Summer 1996

Steven Terenzio

Texas Catholics find a niche - in the ancient art of Russian icon-making

Iconographers and an icon of Mary 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, rather modestly.

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."

Icon in Szombathely, Hungary 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.

Icon of Mary in St. John Neumann Church, Houston "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, she adds.

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 country.

Not exactly the stuff of the brain trusts who devised NAFTA.

Martha Garza
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.

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You are here: Documents > Art and Furnishings > Export Boom  Back one page.

Home | New | FAQ | Search | Forum | Links

All contents © copyright, 1998-2018
The Catholic Liturgical Library