By Stephanie Richer
The gift of a mother is finally realized in the gift of the Mother.
Before her death, Elizabeth Siminerio approached Father Michael Woods with a considerable donation for All Saints Church in Knoxville.
“For some five years before she died,” Father Woods recalled, “Elizabeth would come up to me to ask, ‘Well, have you done anything with the money I gave you?’”
Her family was on hand at All Saints Church Aug. 14 to witness Bishop Richard F. Stika bless the fruits of their mother’s generosity with the dedication of the new Marian chapel at the church.
In a side chapel where previously the Blessed Sacrament was kept before being returned to a place of prominence on the altar, a hand-carved wooden retablo now resides. It is a triptych, with the main panel in the middle depicting the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas. To her left is a relief of the Virgin Mary as a young mother, letting go of her Child’s hand. On the far right panel is an older Mother, mourning at the foot of her Son’s cross.
Scott DeWaard, the artisan who created the cabinet piece in which the reliefs are displayed, recalled receiving a phone call from Bill Christiansen, a member of the parish council at All Saints.
“It was like getting a call from an old friend,” he recalled.
That is because Mr. DeWaard is no stranger to All Saints, having been called before to help create much of the woodwork in the church. He was careful to continue certain motifs already present in All Saints, such as the vines and triangles (a symbol of the Holy Trinity) seen around the church. In his words after Mass, Father Woods pointed out that the dividers between each panel contain some 900 cuts, all handmade, so as to allow the viewer to see different perspectives of the Virgin Mary.
But the task presented to Mr. DeWaard was not without a challenge. He met with Father Woods to discuss the idea of a Marian chapel.
Mr. DeWaard said, laughingly, “[Father Woods] had something in mind – he just didn’t know what he was looking for!”
As the idea was developed, Mr. DeWaard realized that the Virgin Mary needed to be presented not just as the Mother of God but as a “universal mother, the mother of us all.”
Mr. DeWaard realized it would require a special artist to create the images of the Holy Mother. For this reason, he called Sabiha Mujtaba.
“Her work possessed the qualities needed for this chapel,” he said. “I knew she could bring a strong feminine quality to the work, but with great softness at the same time.”
Born in Pakistan and educated in London, Ms. Mujtaba admitted that before she agreed to work with Mr. DeWaard, she did not know anything about the Virgin of Guadalupe.
“This project has been enlightening,” she said. “I realized that each element in the original tilma meant something . . . hers is an image that is incredibly hopeful for the New World, the Americas.”
Ms. Mujtaba said that she wanted to make each panel “about motherhood, entirely.”
“I saw Mary as the ‘all-mother.’ In the first panel, I hoped to show the sadness, but also the trust, of a mother as she lets her child take his first steps, letting go of his hand, while her other hand rests on her heart.”
Ms. Mujtaba described how in the panel of Mary at the foot of the cross, she wanted to show the fear of losing a child. At first she did not want to include any imagery of Jesus, fearing it would distract from the image of the Virgin.
“But people told me that Jesus had to be present – why I included His feet – and that Mary herself encourages such a distraction, as she is always pointing to her Son.”
That imagery was reflected in Bishop Stika’s homily during the Mass that followed the blessing and dedication of the new chapel.
“We are here because of Mary’s fiat, because of her saying ‘yes,’” said the bishop. He explained that her gift to us is that despite not knowing what the future would hold, she said yes to an angel because she trusted in God.
“Trust in Jesus, believe in Jesus, listen to Jesus . . . when you’re happy, sad, doubting, frustrated, confused – turn to Mary.”