A seed was planted about five years ago in the mind of Father Brian Lewis when he went to visit a priest friend in the Diocese of Camden, N.J. They were checking out the stained-glass windows in the priest’s church, Our Lady of Peace in Williamstown, and one was of Our Lady looking over the diocese.
“That put a thought in my mind that we should have that in Wilmington. We should see Our Lady embracing and protecting the Diocese of Wilmington,” said Father Lewis, associate pastor at St. Joseph on the Brandywine and director of the annual diocesan Marian Pilgrimage.
He discussed his idea with the pilgrimage committee, but they weren’t sold on stained glass. The idea of a painting came up instead, and a local teacher contacted Neilson Carlin, a Kennett Square, Pa., artist who painted the portrait of the Holy Family for the World Meeting of Families in 2015 in Philadelphia. Some design ideas were discussed.
“Our initial thought was to have the shape of the diocese be in the immaculate heart of Our Lady,” Father Lewis said. “But working with Father (Joseph) McQuaide and Father (John) Gabage … we came up with something incredibly beautiful and profound and deeply, deeply touching.”
The painting — Our Lady of Wilmington — which was presented publicly for the first time at the Marian Pilgrimage at Holy Spirit Church on Oct. 6, shows Mary with the outline of the Eastern Shore of Maryland on one side and Delaware on the other. She is crowned with 12 stars, representing each of the counties in the diocese. There is a nod to the patron saint of the diocese and to the deaf community, Father Lewis said.
“Mary always brings us closer to her son, and so she’s speaking to us in this painting. But she’s speaking not necessarily with words; she’s speaking with her hands. She’s signing, actually, two signs: live and then Jesus. And ‘Live Jesus,’ we know, is the motto of St. Francis de Sales, the patron of the diocese,” he said.
Father McQuaide, the chancellor and co-chairman of the Sesquicentennial Committee, said he and the other priests offered suggestions along the way. He noted that the painting includes the architectural frame of St. Peter Cathedral.
“It really incarnates Our Lady into the diocese. She is surrounded by Delaware and Maryland symbols, as well as landscapes on each side of the frame,” he said. “She’s our mother, our patroness.”
World Meeting of Families connection
Carlin’s work for the World Meeting of Families was one reason he was commissioned to produce the image, his first for the Diocese of Wilmington. His proximity was another.
“We wanted someone very local, someone with whom we could connect and easily meet. But primarily it was because of his having been selected by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to paint for the World Meeting of Families a very beautiful painting of the Holy Family,” Father Lewis said.
Carlin said he worked closely with Fathers Lewis and Gabage, who “came to me with a very specific description of the symbolism and content they envisioned for the piece, to which I added a few suggestions as the design and painting process unfolded.”
The oil-on-wood painting measures 30 by 48 inches. A limited number of high-quality lithograph copies are available, as is a “more accessible” print.
Carlin said the process was smooth “in large part to the clear guidance of Father Lewis and Father Gabage.”
Father Lewis said the pilgrimage committee is working with religious-education programs, homeschool groups and local Catholic schools to help raise money to fund Our Lady of Wilmington. One idea is to have students donate money in exchange for a dress-down day. Their generosity will help pay for a lasting icon in the diocese.
“It’s a gift from the diocese to the diocese,” he said.