by Kathryn White
Special to The Leaven
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 spreading the Gospel through teaching. I have been to Legends Field in Kansas City, Kansas, to capture priests building up the kingdom through baseball.
I’ve even traveled to the nation’s capital and to Indianapolis to cover teens living out their faith at the March for Life and NCYC. Churches? I’ve photographed ordinations, Chrism Masses, graduations and Holy Week Masses all over the archdiocese. So, when I was assigned to photograph a “mural” with a priest and artist at a church, I thought, no sweat.
Walking into All Saints Parish in Kansas City, Kansas, however, I was taken aback! There was scaffolding from the back of the church to the nave, all the way up to the ceiling! I thought I was looking at some sort of construction scene, not the anticipated serene church sanctuary.
What also took me aback? The zeal of Paul Helmer and Phelipe Linstrom — the artist and primary painter. Their excitement shined as brightly 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 smiles were endless. And contagious.
We headed upstairs to the dust-covered choir loft, and I saw up close the dogwoods they were painting on the ceiling. When we headed back downstairs to the church sanctuary, they talked about the saints in the nave. That’s when Paul said, nearing the ladder to the top of the scaffolding, with that contagious excitement, “You really need to see it up close. Want to?”
In that split second of him waiting for my response, my mind raced. About 25 years ago, I served at Camp Tekakwitha as a high-ropes girl. It was our job to set up the high-ropes challenges around 25-30 feet in the air. So, I’m no stranger to heights.
But a ladder, in a dusty hazy church, carrying my photography gear, in a long skirt, without a harness??
“Come on. It’s easy.” He grabbed one of my cameras and scaled the ladder effortlessly. Just like that, I caught his enthusiasm. And I started up!
As I climbed, rung after rung after rung, my other camera around my neck and still attached to my waist, I could feel sweat start beading on my forehead. This ladder is no joke! I whispered to myself (from my Camp Tekakwitha days) “Clip on, clip off. Clip on, clip off. Three points of contact for safety.”
At this point, even my Apple watch must have sensed my heart rate racing because it vibrated, giving me a little cheer: “Keep it going! Activity goal almost achieved!”
I made it about halfway when Paul peered over the top at me and grinned, “Just don’t look down.” Ha! I looked over, not down, at the tabernacle, where the red candle was dimly burning, amid all the dust and construction wreckage. Jesus is here. OK, I breathed, I’ve got this.
When I was ready to stop on the middle level of scaffolding, Paul encouraged me: “If you are going to make it up this far, you might as well come all the way up.” Well OK, then! Inhale. Exhale. A few more feet. Up I continued.
When I got to the top, it really wasn’t all that bad. I might have needed to wipe the sweat from my brow a little. But the scaffolding was sturdy and I held on to the railings or the ceiling while Paul talked about the life-sized saints peering at me, straight in the eyes. I was face to face with Kateri, Maximilian, Juan, Benedict, Faustina, Teresa and others. Holiness.
Next thing I knew, Father Peter scaled the ladder, and so did Phelipe. I mean, here we were, all four of us, just having a little meeting, 40 feet in the air! They even joked, “We could hoist you up to the very top so you can see the Holy Spirit dove and tongues of fire.” No thanks. I mean, a photog’s gotta draw the line somewhere.
People joke that photographers will do anything to “get the shot.”
But this time, I think it was more about the zeal of these holy artists who are, quite literally, building (painting) God’s house with their bare hands. We probably hung out up there for, maybe, 40 minutes. And, in case you were wondering, there wasn’t an elevator for the way down. I had to make my way again. Rung under rung under rung.
My one regret? Not grabbing a paintbrush and painting a few strokes, somewhere hardly visible, just so I could say that I did. I mean, how many people ever get a Michelangelo’s/bird’s-eye view of the art on the ceiling?
Thank you, Paul, Phelipe and Father Peter, for inviting me to capture such a beautiful experience. I’m excited to attend Mass with you when the church is restored. On the floor this time.