Two saints, two sons inspire liturgical art at Savage parish

| Kristi Anderson for The Catholic Spirit | June 18, 2014 | 1 Comment


For the Rasmussen and Schwartz families of St. John the Baptist in Savage, Pentecost Sunday not only celebrated the coming of the Holy Spirit, but also the long-awaited arrival of two life-size liturgical icons portraying St. Kateri Tekakwitha and Redemptorist priest Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos.

Both icons honor the lives of their sons, but in very different ways.

Joey Schwartz

Joey Schwartz

The parish commissioned the icons, and Father Michael Tix, pastor at St. John the Baptist, worked with artist Nick Markell, whom he had served with on an archdiocesan worship board, and liturgical consultant Father Jim Notebaart.

“When Father Jim suggested that the icons be life-size, it totally caught me by surprise,” Father Tix admitted. “Then I envisioned the communion of saints gathered together with us around the Eucharistic table, and I fell in love with that image.”

Father Tix wanted to highlight modern saints while embracing a sense of diversity. He also wanted both a male and female icon to “represent our universal call to holiness.”

The Schwartzes chose to sponsor the Blessed Seelos icon, while St. Kateri’s image was sponsored by the Rasmussens. Markell created both.

Answering a family’s prayer

The Schwartz family became familiar with Father Seelos, who was beatified in 2000 by Pope John Paul II, after their son, Joey, was diagnosed with a rare and deadly form of cancer in 2008.

“The doctors literally gave us no hope for his recovery,” said Melinda Schwartz, Joey’s mother.

A family friend told them about Father Seelos, a German-born Redemptorist priest who lived from 1819 to 1867 and ministered throughout the United States. He was known for his “cheerful holiness” and, since his death, several healings have been attributed to his intercession.

“We had never heard of him,” Melinda said, “but we began to research all we could about him.”

Eventually, the family traveled to New Orleans to visit the shrine dedicated to Father Seelos. The Seelos Center administrator, Joyce Bourgeois, met with the family and asked Joey for permission to lay her hands on him during Mass.

“It was a really powerful time,” Melinda said. “We all felt a strong presence in the room. We spent two or three hours at the shrine, all of us noticing something happening while we were there, but we really didn’t know why.”

After the trip, Joey met with his doctor, who told him there had been no growth in any of his tumors. Melinda was happy to hear the news from the doctor that “things look good, nothing has spread.” Later that same day, the couple received a second call from the doctor.

“We were driving down the highway,” Melinda recalled, “when the doctor called and said, ‘Not only is his cancer better, it is all gone.’

“We had to pull over and catch our breath,” Melinda said. “It was a miracle.”

Joey recently finished his freshman year at Minnesota State University, Moorhead, and is excited to be a part of bringing the icon to the parish.

“It is humbling,” he said. “I feel blessed and lucky to be able to be here to see the icon and that my church wanted to put it in there. I am a big believer in having art in churches — there is so much symbolism in the artwork. But mostly for me, it is exciting to see Blessed Seelos getting the recognition I think he deserves.”

Icon in remembrance

St. Kateri Tekakwitha, a Native American woman who was born in the United States and died in Canada in 1680, was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in October 2012.

When considering who might sponsor her icon, Father Tix immediately thought of Arnie and Dee Rasmussen. The couple met in the early 1960s while working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Bemidji. Dee is part Native American, specifically, Ojibwe and Sac and Fox.

“Between Dee’s culture and lineage and our involvement through the years,” Arnie explained, “we have a deep interest in the Native American culture. Both of us have a profound interest in St. Kateri.”

“Our only son, Steven, passed away in 2005 and left a great void in our lives,” he continued. “For years, we had thought about what we could do to memorialize him, and we decided this icon was a perfect opportunity that tied into our lives and our faith.”

Father Tix, Markell and the Schwartz and Rasmussen families said they want people to get to know and love the saints.

“This experience opened an opportunity to talk about art in liturgical use, to talk about the lives of saints and to grow and deepen aspects of liturgy that are oftentimes not discussed,” Father Tix said. “It was a great historical and educational moment for our whole community.”

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