Our Lady of Guadalupe graces Bellevue retreat center
June 11, 2020
A well-recognized image of maternal love, peace and unity now greets those who visit the Columban Fathers’ Retreat Center in Bellevue.
A recently completed mural honoring Our Lady of Guadalupe graces the wall of the center as a way to recognize the growing Hispanic presence in the area and to acknowledge the Columban Fathers’ mission to Latin America, said Father Chris Saenz, vice superior at the Columban community.
“Our Lady of Guadalupe has a lot of followers even outside the Hispanic population,” said Father Saenz, a Mexican American who has served as a missionary priest in Chile. “She’s also the patroness of all the Americas, and we wanted to recognize that as well.”
Father Saenz credits the original idea for the mural to Father Tim Mulroy, now the order’s superior general, who approached him about the idea when Father Saenz returned from Latin America in 2017.
But the project really got going when Father Saenz attended the unveiling of another mural in June 2019, an Irish-themed work on the wall of Donohue’s Pub near 32nd and L streets in Omaha. The bar’s owner, Mike Donohue, had been a classmate of Father Saenz at Daniel J. Gross Catholic High School in Bellevue.
“They had been working for two or three years to get this done with the Irish community,” Father Saenz said. “And when it was finally done, he asked me to come out and bless it.”
At the ceremony, Father Saenz met Richard and Rebecca Harrison of A Midsummer’s Mural, who’d worked on the project. The Omaha-based company also is known for the South Omaha Mural Project, which features artwork celebrating the various cultures of South Omaha – the Irish mural is part of that project.
“We’ve gotten to know a lot of different parishes in South Omaha through that,” Rebecca Harrison said, “It’s different neighborhoods and different cultures.”
Father Saenz invited the Harrisons to meet with Columban leaders at the retreat center for a mural of their own in September, and by this past winter, the design was set. When the weather warmed the painting began, and by early May it was completed.
Juan Carlos Garcia, director of Hispanic ministry at the retreat center, described Our Lady of Guadalupe as a unifying figure for the Hispanic community.
“She is present in the faith of all people in Latin America,” Garcia said. “She can be a unifying factor for the local Hispanic community and for the American community as well. That was one of the reasons we chose to go with our Lady of Guadalupe – she can unify different cultures.”
Father Saenz agreed.
“One of the ideas was to recognize the growing Hispanic presence in the area … to offer a place where they can come and worship,” he said. “Also, she’s the patroness of all of the Americas, and we wanted to recognize that as well.”
“Many Catholics have a devotion to Mary of some form, and I think the added presence of Mary on the wall will give people an opportunity to feel that they’re under her care,” he said.
At A Midsummer’s Mural, the Harrisons and muralist Jair Rodriguez were excited to take on the project. Richard Harrison said the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe is important to him.
Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to St. Juan Diego in December 1531 to request a church be built in her honor. To provide proof of the request to the local archbishop, who doubted his vision, she told him to gather roses (although out of season) in his tilma (cloak). When Juan Diego appeared before the archbishop and opened his tilma, Our Lady’s image could be seen miraculously imprinted on the fabric after the roses fell to the floor.
“As an artist, it is significant to me that this holy person was creating a piece of art to tell a story,” Richard Harrison said.
Rodriguez, who helped design and paint the impressive, approximately 25-foot-tall work, is a native of Mexico City, near where the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared.
“Our Lady of Guadalupe … protects us, protects our people and culture,” he said. “Our Lady of Guadalupe really symbolizes peace and unity, especially during this time, and when I was creating it, I felt peace.”
Rodriguez is not the only one who has been struck by the work. Although the mural’s location, at the center of Olde Towne Bellevue, is out of view of any major streets, people have been stopping by to see it, Father Saenz said.
Because of the current pandemic, the retreat center’s been closed, Father Saenz said, but “there have been people who have been coming up and taking pictures of it, standing in front of it in a very prayerful state, taking time to meditate,” he said.
“When you see it in person, it strikes a chord,” said Garcia, who has spoken to visitors who have been moved by the image, which shows Our Lady of Guadalupe with blooming roses at her feet. The flowers, he added, stand out as a symbol of the presence of God – “showing that God is present with our community.”
The floral theme also accents the natural surroundings of the retreat center as it serves Catholics and others, Father Saenz said.
“I feel the mural brings a sense that you’re under Mary’s embrace,” he said. “She’s looking after the people who are there and giving them a certain sense of peace.”