The Church Is Their Canvas

Father Bart Winters wants to help lead his parishioners to the beauty of Christ through the beauty of the arts.

In 2001, Father Winters became pastor of St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church, a historic, Gothic-style edifice in Chicago’s northern neighborhood of Edgewater.

Built in 1904, the church was beautiful but falling into a state of disrepair. The priest quickly set to work on refurbishment — although, he says, with its stately towers and 100-year-old statues, it didn’t need an overhaul so much as a freshening up.

With that in mind, Father Winters decided to implement an artist-in-residence program.

Today the project is a success, enlivening the beauty of the church and the faith of its parishioners in new ways.

Five years ago, to help him with his project, the priest enlisted the help of Joseph Malham, a local artist and iconographer, to help restore the building to its former greatness.

Malham recalls that, initially, Father Winters brought him on board to help refurbish the church. But at a broader level, the pastor wanted to bring a reverent, artistic sensibility to the parish.

What began as a one-man endeavor soon grew as several sacred artists took up residence at St. Gregory’s and began enhancing parish life in their own ways.

Today, the parish is home to Malham, as well as Father John Moulder, a jazz guitarist who is also a professor at nearby Illinois Benedictine University, and an Indiana-based Catholic theater ensemble called Quest.

Father Winters “really sees a value of evangelization through the arts,” Malham told the Register. “He sees every facet [of the artist-in-residence program] as a means to bring people closer to Christ.”

For his part, Father Winters says that, in the spirit of theologian Hans Urs Von Balthazar, he wants to see the beauty of Christ made visible by through sacred art such that it draws people into the Catholic faith.

“We want to reach out to people,” he adds, “with the beauty of art, music and good liturgy.”

‘Christ Is Beautiful’

Like much of Chicago in recent years, the neighborhood around St. Gregory’s has gone through a period of gentrification, where countless old buildings are being torn down to make way for new lofts and condominiums.

Because of this, many longtime residents and parishioners have left the area.

At the same time, says Father Winters, many of the young couples moving into the hip, new neighborhoods tend to leave for the suburbs as soon as they have children.

With his neighborhood in constant flux, Father Winters regrets the somewhat transient nature of St. Gregory’s parishioners.

Still, he’s hopeful that the artist-in-residence program could be the spark that helps to draw in more people. Sacred art has the power to do that, he notes, because “Christ is beautiful.”

On its website (, St. Gregory’s parish states: “The duties of stewardship compel us to conscientiously preserve and multiply [our] inheritance by employing the arts as a tool of evangelization.

“In the beauty of our worship, and by means of regularly scheduled sacred concerts and cultural events, we strive to use the arts to spread Christ’s Gospel.”

Malham and Father Winters, the driving forces behind the artist-in-residence endeavor, see theirs as a pilot program — one they’d like to see migrate to other parishes.

In the midst of what he sees as the “secularization of society,” Malham hopes that St. Gregory’s is not merely “pioneering something, but creating a reconnect of something beautiful from the Church’s past.”

He opines that, sometime after Vatican Council II, there was a drop in appreciation of sacred art.

Malham thinks that, in the rush of excitement over what was new in the Church, many faithful “threw out the baby with the bathwater” and lost touch with the Church’s rich tradition of sacred art and architecture.

In trying to create necessary reforms in liturgical life, he says, Catholics lost much of the artistic beauty of Catholic culture.

“Many people today want to recapture some of the traditions and beauty of the Church’s roots through the sacred arts,” he says.

Many Hands, One Art

In his latest project, Malham has begun working with his friend and mentor, Meltem Aktas, on a new prayer chapel, dedicated to parents who have lost children, in a vacant room at the church.

“In the Christian journey,” says Turkish-born Aktas, “images represent tangible expressions of the spiritual that, while they may stylistically change with the vagaries of time, remain essentially rooted in truth, beauty and hope.”

Malham points out that iconographers do not normally sign their work. Instead, they become “transparent” in order to show the viewer to Christ, not point to themselves.

Like John the Baptist, he says, whose sole purpose was to point the way to Jesus, “this is like a template for the artist-in-residence program: We want to lead people to Christ.”

Unlike the stereotypical image of the secluded artist alone with his craft, the artists at St. Gregory’s seek to work together to enhance parish life through their collective gifts.

Mirroring the idea of a unified body of many complementary parts, described by St. Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians (Chapter 12), Malham says: “We’re not just isolated, individual artists. We need to work as a unit together for the greater glory of God.”

Scott Powell writes

from Denver.


St. Gregory the Great

Artist-in-Residence Program

(773) 561-3546