Artist depicts the apostle as a First Nations man so parishioners can relate
By Agnieszka Krawczynski
St. Paul’s Church in Vancouver has once again tipped its hat to the rich First Nations heritage of its parishioners.
A new icon displayed on its walls features St. Paul the Apostle clad in a woven cedar hat and holding a talking stick and a cedar bough on a typical West Coast shore.
“The people can see themselves in the icon,” artist Andre Prevost explained.
Many churchgoers at St. Paul’s and nearby Sacred Heart Church have First Nations backgrounds. Pastor Father Garry LaBoucane, OMI, who commissioned the icon, asked Prevost to make St. Paul an unmistakably First Nations man evangelizing his own people.
“St. Paul is portrayed as teacher and messenger in the act of journeying,” Prevost said.
“The Coast Salish and Indigenous peoples can see themselves within the icon as bearers of the Good News and as having a shared experience of St. Paul within their church.”
Although not Aboriginal himself, Prevost worked closely with Father LaBoucane to find sensitive ways to make St. Paul look First Nations without using symbols that would single out any particular band. For example, St. Paul’s cedar hat bears no decorations, and his clothing looks almost traditionally Byzantine.
Prevost said the talking stick, a traditional symbol of welcome and invitation, was important to include.
“St. Paul is coming into the community and, as the bearer of the talking stick, is inviting, coming, and speaking,” said the iconographer. “He is inviting people to the Eucharist.”
Talking sticks are “distinct for each bearer and for each family,” he said. To help parishioners from any nation relate to the icon , he gave St. Paul a talking stick resembling the one belonging to their pastor, Father LaBoucane.
In his other hand, St. Paul carries a cedar bough, a symbol of cleansing and blessing, and a scroll with part of St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians: “Follow Him and let your roots grow deep into Him. Col. 2:6-7.”
St. Paul’s church has also incorporated First Nations cultural practices in other ways. A likeness of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first native American canonized as a Catholic saint, hangs inside the dimly lit church.
Father LaBoucane welcomes drumming and traditional clothing at Mass and oversees programs that help First Nations people reconnect with their roots by learning to make drums, moccasins, and beadwork at the nearby St. Kateri Tekakwitha Centre.
Prevost has been writing icons since the 1980s, when he was a member of St. Edmund’s Parish in North Vancouver. Some of his earliest works are still there.
An icon of Our Lady of Canada, written in 2015 for Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, hangs in the headquarters of the Archdiocese of Vancouver, and Prevost’s art is also displayed in various churches in Edmonton and Winnipeg.
The Catholic iconographer now lives and paints just outside Nanaimo. “The last number of years I’ve also been doing a series of paintings focusing on the West Coast totems,” he said.
“With St. Paul came an interesting crossroads of my two interests.”