Smiling faces are a given welcome when you first enter St. Leo the Great School, but what is also given for your eyes to see next is a powerfully striking glass mosaic, which radiantly graces the lobby of the Rohrerstown school.
Five years ago when art teacher Kathryn Hemlick was hired, the school’s principal, Christine McLean, showed her the empty space were the school’s office once was and told the artist that a part of her labor would be to fill the empty space with an artistic project. It was the school’s 50th anniversary year when that goal was set. Today, there is a finished, beautifully fit exquisite mosaic – named the Seven Sacrament Mosaic – depicting the seven sacramental tenets of the Catholic faith in bold fashion with nearly 14,000 pieces of multiple hued glass pieces cut to every size and angle. That sheer number alone illustrates the immense amount of time and effort that was given to this roughly 6-by-8 foot masterpiece.
Hemlick designed and oversaw the project from conception to completion, but the real beauty of this project when speaking to her and the students about the long artistic endeavor is that the entire school and parish community came together to work on the project. It was a “we” thing piece by piece.
While Hemlick spent some 600 hours on the mosaic, more than 350 students also contributed countless hours cutting glass pieces and placing them into the pattern that required precision and the ability to adapt to making the pieces fit not only space wise but complimentary color wise as well. Students and their families came to the school over two summers to help with the project, and truly this was a dedicated effort to be expressive with an ancient art form that dates back thousands of years.
All the while working on the project, many lessons were learned about how important it is to express oneself in art to bring glory to God. Above all, the literal message of the mosaic speaks clearly to the central beauty of the Church’s sacramental life.
“Our seven sacraments are God’s way of reaching down to us and offering us a lifelong gift,” McLean said. “A gift of grace that gives us a glimpse of heaven and a taste of eternity.”
Given that Hemlick had never created a mosaic, she did extensive research online, and counted on a glass provider in Maryland to help with the elaborate process. Numerous parishioners helped as well with framing and grouting and with mounting and installation. Hemlick stressed this was a “total parish project” and that it was a team effort in every manner.
On Dec. 6, Father Peter Hahn, pastor, blessed the mosaic during the Advent season.
“As we come into our Catholic school, the first thing our students see is this wonderful mosaic…with of course the center being Our Lord in the Eucharist,” Father Hahn said. “To think every single one of these pieces was placed there by a human hand is that kind of loving testimony to God’s life given to us is beautiful.”
Arguably the most striking feature of the mosaic is its central presentation of the Holy Eucharist in rich hues of orange and yellow. On top of that core foundation, the Holy Spirit is marked with a white dove surrounded by a chorus of blue tiles that speaks to the vital tool of combing colors to speak to the human eye in positive fashion. That central art tenet is expertly illustrated by Hemlick and her many helpers.
“This is an excellent teaching tool for our school,” Hemlick said, flanked by the mosaic. “Yes, we teach about the sacraments, but we also learn about history and math with this art. My hope is to continue to develop lessons from this.”
She also stressed how “exciting it was to have everyone be a part of the project,” and to see the “curiosity and excitement in her students” as they saw “it come together,” which made the project so rewarding for her. She considers this to be a “project of a lifetime.” And in talking to St. Leo students their enthusiasm and pride in the project is easily felt. “I came in over the summer with my parents… and I got to place a lot of the tiles, mostly the water,” third grader Rose Burns said who started working on the mosaic when she was in first grade.
For Evy Sahd along with her sister Annie, seventh and eighth graders respectively they also enjoyed doing the project as a family. “What I will remember most is that everyone was happy doing it, and putting a little piece of love into it,” Evy Sahd said.
That loving grace after all the hours freely given by all is what welcomes you when you first enter St. Leo the Great School.
By Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness