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Detroit teacher brings saints and others who represent Black and Mexican American students to life in mural

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Jeremy Alexander, an iconographer and second-year theology teacher at Detroit Cristo Rey High School, is pictured Dec. 18, 2023, with a mural he created on a wall of the school's small chapel. Painted in his signature Byzantine style, the mural features 37 diverse saints, artists, poets, civil rights leaders and human rights activists. (OSV News photo/Steven Stechschulte, special to the Detroit Catholic)

DETROIT– Kim Redigan used to look out the window of Detroit Cristo Rey High School’s small chapel as she prayed.

Last summer, however, industrial-sized air-conditioning units were installed outside the window, and just like that, the view of the southwest Detroit neighborhood where many of the school’s students lived was obstructed.

Redigan, director of campus ministry at Cristo Rey, was distraught that the chapel had lost some of its beauty. It needed color and vibrancy — something to give it the warmth that the view of the neighborhood had always provided.

Enter Jeremy Alexander, a second-year Cristo Rey theology teacher who had taught himself the art of iconography. Alexander agreed with Redigan’s assessment, and the two decided a mural would help restore an atmosphere conducive to prayer and reflection in the space.

After discussing the project with the school’s leadership, the two bounced their ideas. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to depict saints and others who represent Black and Mexican American students at Cristo Rey? And to portray artists, poets and civil rights leaders who are sometimes forgotten? And wouldn’t it be a blessing to have the mural completed by All Saints’ Day on Nov. 1?

It was already mid-July, so Alexander got to work. He began with a drawing of Our Lady of Guadalupe and added St. Juan Diego directly beneath. Then, one by one, he added more figures in his signature Byzantine style.

A mural covering a wall of the small chapel at Detroit Cristo Rey High School is seen Dec. 18, 2023. Created by Jeremy Alexander, an iconographer and second-year theology teacher at Cristo Rey, the mural features 37 diverse saints, artists, poets, civil rights leaders and human rights activists, including Dorothy Day, center, who co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement. (OSV News photo/Steven Stechschulte, special to the Detroit Catholic)

“I wanted to portray an image of the communion of saints,” Alexander told Detroit Catholic, the archdiocese’s digital news outlet. “Once I got into it, it grew from there.”

A few Cristo Rey teachers suggested other figures for Alexander to include. A Jesuit friend pointed out that a Catholic mural in Detroit couldn’t omit Ste. Anne de Detroit, so he added her.

In the end, the mural included 37 men and women, including St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Franciscan Father Mychal Judge, Blessed Solanus Casey, Father Augustus Tolton, Trappist Father Thomas Merton, St. Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day and Cesar Chavez.

“We have canonized saints in the mural, and people whom I would describe as canonized in our hearts,” Redigan said. “It ranges the gamut and includes some of our Black saints whom we hope will be canonized.”

As Alexander painted in the chapel, students stopped by to pray during the school day or after classes ended. He found the process to be cathartic. Some nights when he was engrossed in the project, he would work until 10 p.m.

“In my mind, it’s a gift from the heart for this community,” Alexander said. “When I was first hired here, it was like a dream come true. I wanted to teach high school theology so badly, and I felt lucky that I had this opportunity to do it. The kids are so gracious, and the community around the school is very loving.”

Alexander learned firsthand about the caring neighborhood and school community when his apartment building caught fire in May. He was left without a place to stay.

“The teachers and families at the school gave overwhelmingly to help me through that time, and some who gave had little themselves,” he said. “And I thought, ‘This is the church, right here.’ And so, the mural is my gift of thanks.”

Alexander finished the mural during the third week of October. On Nov. 1, the feast of All Saints, Jesuit Father Trevor Rainwater blessed it after a Mass celebrated in the chapel. Since then, students have spent time there gazing at the mural as they pray or as they talk through their joys and sorrows with Redigan, whose tiny office is located behind a partition at one end of the chapel.

Alexander hopes anyone who visits the chapel, be it student, faculty, parent or visitor, will be inspired by the stories of the people depicted in the mural.

“It’s so easy to think of saints as the apostles or Our Lady, as unreachable heights from 2,000 years ago,” Alexander said. “But many of the people in the mural are those who look like the people in this community, and who struggled with real life, who had good days and bad days but never stopped seeking perfection and holiness.”

“For every person who comes in, it’s an acknowledgment that they, too, can be a saint,” Alexander added. “It doesn’t matter that it’s (2024) and not 33 A.D. They are called to be saints.”