by Kathryn White
Working as a freelancer for The Leaven has blessed me with some pretty awesome experiences. I have visited so many schools, even during the pandemic, meeting passionate educators who are spreading the gospel through teaching. I went to Legends Field in Kansas City, Kansas to capture priests building the kingdom through baseball.
I’ve even traveled to the nation’s capital and Indianapolis covering teens living their faith at the March for Life and NCYC. Churches? I have photographed Ordinations, Chrism Masses, Graduations and Holy Week Masses throughout the Archdiocese. So when I was commissioned to photograph a “mural” with a priest and an artist in a church, I thought, no worries.
Upon entering All Saints Parish in Kansas City, Kansas, however, I was surprised! There were scaffolding from the bottom of the church to the nave, up to the ceiling! I thought I was looking at some sort of building scene, not the intended serene church sanctuary.
What also surprised me? The zeal of Paul Helmer and Phelipe Linstrom – the main artist and painter. Their excitement shone as bright as the murals they were painting. I got caught up in the moment as I followed them through the dusty air, listening to their process and passion behind what they were doing and why. Their stories and their smiles were endless. And contagious.
We walked up to the dust-covered chancel loft, and I saw up close the dogwoods they were painting on the ceiling. When we went back down to the sanctuary of the church, they talked about the saints in the nave. It was then that Paul said, approaching the ladder at the top of the scaffolding, with that contagious excitement, “You really have to see it up close. Want to?”
For that split second he was waiting for my response, my mind raced. About 25 years ago I served at Camp Tekakwitha as a jumper. It was our job to set up the high ropes challenges about 25-30 feet in the air. So, I’m no stranger to heights.
But a ladder, in a misty, dusty church, carrying my camera gear, in a long skirt, without a harness??
“Come on. It’s easy.” He grabbed one of my cameras and climbed the ladder effortlessly. Just like that, I caught his enthusiasm. And I started!
As I climbed rung after rung after rung, my other camera around my neck and still strapped to my waist, I could feel the sweat beginning to bead on my forehead. This scale is no joke! I whispered to myself (since my days at Camp Tekakwitha) “Clip on, clip off. Clip, unclip. Three points of contact for security.
At this point, even my Apple Watch must have felt my heartbeat quicken as it vibrated, giving me a bit of encouragement: “Keep going!” Activity goal almost achieved!
I made it about halfway through when Paul looked at me over the roof and smiled, “Don’t look down.” Ha! I looked up, not down, at the tabernacle, where the red candle was burning dimly, amidst all the dust and construction debris. Jesus is here. OK, I took a breath, I have this.
When I was ready to stop at the intermediate level of the scaffolding, Paul encouraged me: “If you’re going to catch up here, you might as well climb to the end. Alright then! Inhale. Exhale. A few more feet. I continued.
When I got to the top it really wasn’t that bad. I might have needed to wipe a little sweat from my brow. But the scaffolding was solid and I clung to the railings or the ceiling while Paul talked about the life-size saints who looked me straight in the eye. I was face to face with Kateri, Maximilian, Juan, Benoît, Faustine, Teresa and others. Holiness.
The next thing I knew was that Father Peter climbed the ladder, and so did Phelipe. I mean, there we were, the four of us, just having a little meeting, 40 feet in the air! They even joked, “We could lift you up so you could see the dove of the Holy Spirit and the tongues of fire. No thanks. I mean, a photographer has to draw the line somewhere.
People joke that photographers would do anything to “get the picture”.
But this time, I think it was more about the zeal of those holy artists who literally build (paint) the house of God with their bare hands. We probably hung out there for, maybe, 40 minutes. And, in case you were wondering, there was no elevator to get down. I had to redo my way. Rung below rung below rung.
My only regret ? Not grabbing a brush and painting a few strokes, somewhere barely visible, just to be able to say I did it. I mean, how many people ever get a bird’s eye view of Michelangelo’s ceiling art?
Thank you, Paul, Phelipe and Father Peter, for inviting me to capture such a beautiful experience. I am delighted to attend mass with you when the church is restored. On the ground this time.