Iconographer Brings to Life Native Catholic Holiness
Canadian Andre Prevost’s First Nations series is helping Catholics to pray with the living roots of the Church in North America.
As he approaches the icon in his Vancouver, British Columbia, studio, Andre Prevost places his hand on the unfinished work and prays.
“You need to guide me on this. How do you want your icon to be seen?”
With each stroke of the brush deftly laying down another layer of archival acrylic paint, the Canadian Catholic iconographer is almost more a sculptor than a painter, freeing the image of the holy men and women to emerge on the icon’s carefully prepared wood.
Then, in a moment, another layer is applied, and everything changes — and the artist says he feels the holy presence of the depicted holy man or holy woman in the room.
“And then I can pray directly with the icon,” Prevost tells the Register.
What makes Prevost’s work distinctive is that he paints Catholic icons according to the specific cultures of the nations and tribes indigenous to North America, the living roots of the Catholic Church in Canada and the U.S.
Icons are a form of early religious art from the Eastern Churches often depicting holy men and women for devotional purposes, with iconographers using various conventions to indicate Jesus Christ, Mary or the saints. Icons have also been used as a teaching device to tell biblical stories or the truths of the faith. The artist began writing icons for Eastern Churches, and, today, he almost exclusively paints icons for First Nations Catholics, illustrating not only their spiritual insights, but also revealing their heroes of holiness that are or that could one day be canonized.
The iconographer’s first responsibility, Prevost explains, is to draw a person into prayer. And reflecting saints in one’s culture, or seeing saints from their own culture, is key in that.
“People need to see Christ is part of their humanity. And people need to connect to that,” he says.
Getting the culture right for each icon is a monumental challenge. The most challenging icon composed in Prevost’s studio — an important forerunner to St. Kateri Tekakwitha venerated by the North American Jesuit martyrs — gazes back at the viewer with firm conviction, muscular strength and passionate intensity: Joseph Chiwatenhwa (1602-1640), whose evangelization of the Huron Confederacy was so great in the three years between his baptism and death in 1640 that he had completed the full 30-day Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and was known by contemporaries as the “Apostle with the Apostles.” St. John Paul II singled out Chiwatenhwa and his wife, Marie Aonetta, in 1984 for their evangelization and living out the faith in a “heroic manner.”
Prevost made pains to make sure Chiwatenhwa was depicted as a 17th-century Wendat (Huron) Catholic, whose regalia reflected his membership in the Wendat nation’s Bear Clan. The cross Chiwatenhwa holds refers to the fate of martyrdom he saw in visions before his death and the Catholic faith he brought to his people. The beaded satchel he carries refers to the relics of the saints he brought with him on a canoe trip from Quebec to the Wendat Catholic community. . Massive conversions to the faith took place after his martyrdom, laying the eventual groundwork for the Catholic faith to be brought by Wendat Catholics to the Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee, also known as the Iroquois.
A Special Request
Prevost originally began writing icons in the 1980s for Ukrainian Catholics in Alberta, Canada. His career painting First Nations icons began when he moved to North Vancouver, and Father Garry LaBoucane, of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, made a request for “icons from a First Nations perspective.”
Father LaBoucane, who is a Métis elder and pastor of Sacred Heart and St. Paul’s Catholic Churches in Vancouver, told the Register that he had met Prevost previously in Alberta. He wanted Indigenous Catholic icons at St. Paul’s, especially so Indigenous people living there would “feel welcome and at home in the Church.” He did not have an icon of St. Paul, so he asked Prevost to write an icon of Paul, but as Coastal Salish, the people who called the area home.
“Then we got on a roll here,” the priest said. The next icon Father LaBoucane commissioned was St. Anne and Jesus, depicted in head dancers’ regalia typical for the Plains First Nations, for the Lac St. Anne pilgrimage, when 40,000 Indigenous Catholics come to the St. Anne Shrine in central Alberta. From there, Prevost’s icons depicted more and more Catholic saints as Indigenous or depicted Indigenous Catholic holy men and women in Catholic and Anglican churches.
The First Nations icons require Prevost to immerse himself in prayer, approaching his craft with humility and due diligence to make sure that the icon is faithful to that particular culture and how the Catholic faith shines through it.
Father LaBoucane explained Prevost is very sensitive to respect the people and their culture.
“He does an extreme amount of research and is very exact,” the priest said. “If he can connect with people from those cultures, he will do that icon. And he tries to be as accurate as possible with the information he has.”
North America is home to more than a thousand Native nations and tribes, each with their own culture, heritage and symbols important to them. Prevost consults extensively with First Nations people about how to properly write each icon.
Faithful to the Icon’s Prototype
In the case of First Nations holy men and women, Prevost strives diligently to be faithful to the prototype for the icon. When it came to St. Kateri Tekakwitha, Prevost faced an immediate challenge: Most mass-produced Catholic art depicts St. Kateri dressed in buckskin dress and braids. Few depictions of her show her as a Mohawk woman from the 17th century.
Sister Kateri Mitchell, the former executive director of the Tekakwitha Conference and who, like her namesake, is a Mohawk Catholic of the Turtle Clan, helped guide Prevost in depicting the real St. Kateri with her Mohawk features.
“The design is quite particular to the Iroquois people, the Mohawk being one of those nations,” she said. Prevost’s icon shows St. Kateri wearing traditional Mohawk regalia made from trade cloth and beaded with floral designs. Her face is depicted as beautiful, as it looked after her death, when scars from small pox disappeared, and wearing a blue shawl over her hair — unbraided, as befitted an unmarried Mohawk woman of her time. The fidelity to St. Kateri’s culture in the icon’s depiction, including the use of white, purple and dark blues that refer to the Iroquois and Mohawk cultures, made an impression on Sister Kateri.
“What he produced was really something different from the other portraits made of her,” Sister Kateri said. “People really liked that when I showed it at the Tekakwitha Conference.”
Sister Kateri said Prevost’s most recent St. Kateri icons, depicting her with an Eastern woodlands background, also strengthen St. Kateri’s connections to Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) culture and spirituality and role as the “patroness of ecology.”
“Andre is an artist who is very gifted, and he tries to zero in on the culture of that particular saint’s image,” Sister Kateri added. “When it comes to depicting another Native culture, we all look different.”
Prevost followed the same principle with Rose Prince (1915-1949) of the Dakelh (Carrier) Nation, whose body was found incorrupt after her death and is considered St. Kateri’s counterpart for Western Canada. Rose’s grave is a place of pilgrimage, and people have reported healings and favors. The Diocese of Prince George is seeking a fully substantiated medical miracle to open the cause, a challenge given that many Indigenous people in their region have incomplete health records.
Prevost’s icon does not depict Rose dressed in traditional Dakelh regalia. The reasons, however, relate to Rose’s sacrificial choice to live out the rest of her life at the residential school she had attended, following the death of her beloved mother and two sisters, instead of returning to her people. Rose chose to care for the Dakelh children in the school, teaching them about Jesus in the language and culture of their people, which was forbidden by Canada’s government. In Prevost’s icon, Rose is depicted with the modern garments she wore and holding a book in the Dakelh language.
“I’m trying to remain faithful to her choices,” Prevost said.
“Your choices have an impact on the strength of the icon in the end.”
Spirituality of the Iconographer
Prevost has painted 17 First Nations icons, and his website features reflections and commentaries on the icons, illuminating the significance of the various symbols and choices involved. Each full-size icon reflects an average 200 hours’ worth of effort from start to finish — a labor of love to produce an instrument of grace. The artist’s website offers the possibility of commissioning new icons, as well as purchasing affordable prints.
In Canada, especially following the Kamloops children’s graves scandal, the Catholic Church is headed toward a full reckoning with the injustice of the residential-school era. But Father LaBoucane said Prevost’s work is important in making reconciliation possible.
“To conciliate is to be friends, to repair the relationship,” he said. “And Andre does that visually.”
The chapel at St. Thomas Aquinas Regional Secondary School in Vancouver reflects that potential reconciliation. The school features First Nations Catholic icons alongside other Catholic saints by Prevost in its chapel. The icons visually tell a beautiful story of the Church that could one day become widely shared. The school has commissioned its latest icon from Prevost to be Antonio Cuipa, an Apalachee Catholic leader from the La Florida Martyrs cause, who was martyred for the Catholic faith in 1704 on a burning cross at the hands of the English in Florida.
Prevost compares the experience of an icon leaving him to a child leaving his mother to go out into the world. In fact, no one who prays with it will be able to identify the artist — the iconographer leaves no signature or “artistic flair” to draw any attention to himself.
The icon is totally given over to prayer. And Prevost keeps giving himself over to prayer, writing the images of holy men and women from the First Nations, feeling their presence with him, and asking for their prayers and the Holy Spirit’s guidance as he labors in his studio.
“I just keep trusting that the Spirit will guide and the good Lord will keep using these hands,” he said. “And I will — as long as these poor things can hold out.”
Readers can learn more about Andre Prevost’s icons at AndrePrevost.com.
- native catholics
- indigenous people
- catholic artists
- catholic art
- st. kateri
- st. kateri tekakwitha
- native peoples
- peter jesserer smith