East Meets West in D.C.

The Maronite Chapel at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception features the artwork of Cameron Smith, including St. Maron and Our Lady of Lebanon.

As a student at North Carolina State University in the 1990s, Cameron Smith was pondering the definition of art. Concluding that art was an interaction with the Holy Spirit, he has built his life around this definition. Even deviations into side careers out of financial need couldn’t silence the calling. Although there are times now, as a husband and father of five, that he is tempted to walk away from the difficult task of creating a living based on art, he continues.

He has considered himself a Catholic artist ever since he read Pope John Paul II’s 1999 “Letter to Artists.”

Smith’s sketches of Pope John Paul II and his paintings of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary are undeniably Catholic in content. But other examples, at SmithCatholicArt.com, are scenes of family and beachside busyness. “All my art is not religious in subject,” said Smith. “You could rightly say it is all Catholic, in that it is shaped by my Catholic worldview. It is my faith more than the subject of my work which really makes me a ‘Catholic artist.’”

Most commissioned paintings come from liturgical design firms. For an artist such as Smith, trying to support a family, relying on sacred art is not easy, even if God’s call is clear.

“It’s amazing how God works,” said Smith. “He seems to love a good, dramatic story. Never knowing where work will come from or when a painting will sell has taught us to live by faith. Just when the finances look the worst, something happens.”

An Eparchy’s Dream

Facing another period of uncertainty last year, Smith was surprised one day to receive a phone call asking if he would consider one of his biggest jobs ever to be displayed in a venue that he had only dreamed about: the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.

While Smith concentrated on painting and supporting his wife, Kristen, as she home-schooled their three oldest children, further up the Eastern seaboard the Eparchy of St. Maron of Brooklyn was doing some work of its own.

The Syriac Maronite Church of Antioch is an Eastern Catholic Church in full communion with the Holy See of Rome. Its origins can be traced to the fourth century and a community founded by St. Maron, a monk and contemporary friend of St. John Chrysostom. Although Maronites share the same doctrine as all Catholics, the Maronite Church retains its own spirituality, liturgy, theology, discipline and hierarchy and uses Syriac as its liturgical language. Worldwide there are more than 3 million Maronites, but many of the estimated 1 million U.S. Maronites have been absorbed into the Western-tradition churches, and only about 60,000 are affiliated with a Maronite diocese.

In 2007, a committee under the direction of Bishop Gregory Mansour of the Eparchy of St. Maron of Brooklyn brainstormed a list of basic financial needs — and one other thing: a chapel at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

“It was too expensive,” Bishop Mansour said. “But then, last year, we went back and tried again.”

This time, the Maronites had better luck. They learned that the price would be less than previously thought; emboldened, Bishop Mansour and his staff secured pledges for the maintenance projects and the chapel.

D.C. Basilica

The basilica itself is an example of classic Catholic art. Modeled in the Romanesque-Byzantine style both inside and out, the basilica’s outer structure boasts life-size sculptures of saints and detailed archways and tympana, while, inside, mosaics, stained-glass windows and polished-stone sculptures direct visitors toward God.

Among the more than 70 small chapels housed in the basilica, the Maronite chapel is the only representative of the Eastern Catholic tradition.

The Eparchy of St. Maron hired St. Jude Liturgical Arts Studio, a design, fabrication and installation firm in Haverstown, Pa., to draw up the plans. In keeping with the Maronite art tradition, they wanted a stone interior reminiscent of the stone churches in Lebanon. A Syriac cross adorning the altar and Lebanon wood on the floor would reflect the same aesthetic of simplicity and history.

“Maronite art is beautiful and simple, almost childish,” said Bishop Mansour.

Behind the altar they planned scenes of the Four Evangelists, the Crucifixion, and Mary and the Infant Jesus, all taken from a sixth-century illustrated Book of the Gospels. Facing the altar on either wall were to be two paintings, one of St. Maron, the other of Our Lady of Lebanon, to be modeled after the statue at the famous Marian shrine and pilgrimage site in Lebanon.

Louis DiCocco, master designer of the Maronite Chapel and the president of St. Jude Liturgical Arts, is pleased to share traditional art: “What I’m finding is there’s a move to go back to the traditional and the devotional — what we, a generation ago, used to use. Not only St. Joseph and Blessed Mary shrines, but Stations of the Cross and other saints. In lieu of recent church closings, some of the materials are now being reused, and we’re acting as mediators, taking old pieces and adding them to a contemporary building.”

To implement the right vision they needed a special artist. Several years ago, Smith sent an email to St. Jude Liturgical Arts, asking the firm to consider him for commissions. He never heard back, but the firm didn’t forget him. “I admired his work,” DiCocco said of Smith. “It was rare that an artist had such a great flair for Catholic art, and I kept (his information) until I found a commission that would be appropriate for him.”

The two paintings for the chapel proved to be the perfect choice. “My job was to capture these works in a way recognizable to the Maronite people, while also uniting the pieces in style and quality so they work together in the new chapel,” said Smith.

God, it seemed, was always right there.

At a time when Smith was struggling with St. Maron’s features, he made a special prayer one day at Mass, then bumped into an old friend immediately afterward. The friend, it turns out, is of Lebanese heritage and ended up serving as a model for the saint.

In early September, Smith readied the paintings for their new home. Bishop Mansour presided at the dedication. “This is a beautiful day for the Maronites and for the national shrine,” said the bishop at the dedication. “The Church breathing with both lungs.”

Added Msgr. Walter Rossi, rector of the basilica, “With the dedication of the Chapel of Our Lady of Lebanon, one of the most ancient Eastern Churches is now represented at the patronal church of the United States. The chapel visibly expresses the beauty of another distinct community in the Roman Catholic Church, the Maronite Church.”

It was a beautiful day for Smith, too. As he said, “The certainty that art is my calling is greater now than ever.”

Dana Lorelle writes from Cary, North Carolina.