The Chapel of Saint Thomas Aquinas was designed to symbolize the connection between the University of Saint Thomas and the citizens of Saint Paul. That is why former Archbishop John Ireland insisted that its main door face outward from the campus toward downtown. Last year, Saint Thomas built on that connection with the opening of the Iverson Center for Faith and its Hoedeman Gallery of Sacred Art on the hill just beneath the chapel.

Now, with the seasons of Easter, Passover and Ramadan all at hand, people of all faiths are encouraged to visit the Hoedeman Gallery’s Interfaith Prayer Wall and its current exhibit of sacred art from the permanent collection of the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis.

sacred art
The Rev­er­end Larry Snyder of the Uni­versity of Saint Thomas stands before the 9-by-6-foot Interfaith Prayer Wall in UST’s Hoedeman Gallery of Sacred Art. Photo by Brad Stauffer

The two exhibits represent the beauty of sacred art and the universal message of faith that can be found in the works, according to the Reverend Larry Snyder, vice president for mission at Saint Thomas. “Easter is clearly significant for us, but this is also an important time for other faiths,” he said.

An appreciation for the connections among religions is what led to the creation of the Interfaith Prayer Wall by Aimee Orkin. She is a member of the Interfaith Artist Circle, a group of 19 Twin Cities artists who study, pray and create art together. Each artist contributed a piece to the wall, including paintings, paper-cuttings, paper collages, weavings, embroidery and beaded fabrics.

“At this time of religious and political conflicts, I felt the need to create a collaborative space of peace, beauty and positive intention with people who believe in connection rather than isolation or segregation,” said Orkin, an art specialist at the Minneapolis Jewish Day School.

“If we stay separate in our own faith-based beliefs, we’ll always see differences. If we come together, we can still hold on to our own beliefs but come to understand and respect others’.”

Orkin created a 9-by-6-foot backdrop for the art using architectural forms drawn from the traditions of the three Abrahamic faiths. “I painted the backdrop in ochre golds like the ancient limestone of the Jerusalem walls,” she said. “To represent Judaism, I chose the Western Wall that remains from the Second Temple. For the Christian inspiration, I chose the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. To represent Islam, I chose the shape of a prayer niche, called a mihrab, in Iran.”

 

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Merriam Park artist Hend Al-Mansour’s acrylic painting, “Hafsa Scribing the Qur’an,” is part of the prayer wall. The work depicts Hafsa, one of Muhammad’s wives, who was entrusted to keep scripts of the Qur’an, the holy text of Islam. “She played an instrumental role in preserving and, some argue, editing and codifying the Qur’an,” Al-Mansour said. “When the Qur’an was collected into a written book, 10 years after the death of Muhammad, Hafsa was asked to lend the caliph her sheets to copy them.

“We all have connections here,” Al-Mansour said, “to common geography, common cultures, but this (prayer wall) adds another dimension. There is a center that grabs all of us—the faith represented by our group and of all others. Thinking about what’s going on with COVID and racism, which has been happening through years but culminating now, it’s really nice that Saint Thomas, this Catholic college, is showing all of us that we can be together. This is beautiful and empowering.”

Thinking about the wall, Lowertown artist Paula Leiter Pergamen is reminded of the old saying: All rivers lead to the ocean. “If we stay separate in our own faith-based beliefs, we’ll always see differences,” she said. “If we come together, we can still hold on to our own beliefs but come to understand and respect others’.”

Pergamen’s contribution to the wall is a painting and collage that offers a visual interpretation of the Mark Twain quote: Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it. “The profound simplicity of this thought spoke to my heart,” she said. “Every living soul, every culture, every faith, every country has in some way felt the heel of oppression, hatefulness and misunderstood pain. No one gets through this life without somehow being the oppressor or the oppressed. Our exquisite pain could be lessened by simply heeding this thoughtful message and allowing forgiveness to fill the air.

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A detail of the Interfaith Prayer Wall currently on display in the Hoedeman Gallery of Sacred Art at the University of St. Thomas. Photo by Brad Stauffer

“Saint Thomas has the eye, the ear and the insight of the Catholic community in Saint Paul,” Pergamen said. “It also reaches the minds and hearts of Saint Paul’s diverse faith-based communities. The Hoedeman Gallery becomes a meetinghouse that acknowledges the need for respecting differences, communicating similarities and healing misconceptions. It’s a place to show beauty, struggle and pain and inform our desire to understand one another.”

‘Art can take us out of our heads and into our hearts.’

Summit Hill artist Beth Andrews’ creation, “Pray for Us,” is also part of the wall. “It’s a collage made from vintage Time magazines,” she said. “I tore out images that reminded me of highlights in my spiritual journey or represented the connections I feel to the seekers who have gone before me. At the center is an arched pathway inviting the viewer into the mystery of it all.

“When I look at it hung alongside works created by other women in our group, I can see how Aimee’s intent has been realized,” Andrews said. “Art is a powerful way to communicate our experience of the sacred to people whose religious backgrounds and practices differ from our own. Art bypasses words, using shape, line, color and composition to evoke emotional responses in the viewers. Art can take us out of our heads into our hearts, helping to break down barriers and reveal our shared humanity.”

“When we built the Iverson Center and gallery, our hope was that it would encourage engagement among people,” Snyder said. “Universities are meant to prepare students for life, for living with and respecting people of different beliefs, cultures, races. And art is certainly a vehicle to do that.”

The 12 works that are on loan from the Basilica of Saint Mary accomplish much of the same ends. “They’re all from the Christian tradition, but from all over the world—China, Japan, Africa and a couple from local artists,” Snyder said. “Here, too, people will be able to appreciate the commonalities.”

The Interfaith Prayer Wall will be on view through April 30 and the works from the Basilica of Saint Mary through August 31. Admission is free and open to the public from 6:45 a.m.-10:00 p.m. weekdays and from 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Patrons are asked to wear face masks and to maintain social distancing.

— Anne Murphy

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