The mural, painted by artist Geo Rhode, depicts St. Steven being welcomed into heaven following his martyrdom. The mural is displayed on the cieling of St. Steven Parish in Sun Lakes. (Photo courtesy of Ashley Rhode)

SUN LAKES — A church in the far-east corner of the Phoenix Diocese has undergone extensive renovation and part of the reworking includes a 22-foot ceiling mural depicting the parish patron, St. Steven.

“It was a very extensive rework,” said Steven Schloeder, the architect charged with the project. “We basically gutted the interior of the building.” The remodel and upgrade added new pews, cork flooring, a fire sprinkler system and several other features.

Schloeder, who is not only a registered architect but also holds a Ph.D. in theology, said the purpose of the renovation was to give a sense of dignity to the church and upgrade the furnishings. As he studied the building and made his evaluations, he noted that the acoustics were poor, partly due to the ceiling which he described as very plain.

“It just looked like a big box. In the history of Church architecture, if you look at ceilings, they’re so important,” Schloeder said. “It’s something about heaven.” The idea of a ceiling mural came to him as he began to design and make sense of the ceiling.

The parish examined the artistic works of five or six candidates Schloeder recommended, ultimately selecting Geo Rhode, a Los Angeles-based artist whose work is on display at the Passionist Retreat Center in Southern California.

The original concept of the ceiling mural was to have a series of vignettes that showed the story of St. Steven and his martyrdom. In the end, the parish committee chose to have Geo — the artist prefers to go by his first name only — paint the triumphant ascension of St. Steven.

The first martyr of the Church, St. Steven is shown being welcomed by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He’s accompanied by his guardian angel and another angel. The rocks used to stone him are falling from his hands.

“The stones not only represent his martyrdom, but also represent him letting go of the world, letting the old man pass away so to speak, and letting the world pass away,” Geo said. “He’s being guided up to heaven with his face on Christ with joy. It’s almost as if he’s running — he can’t wait to get up there.”

From left: Dcn. Ron TenBarge; artist Geo Rhode; and Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted stand inside the newly renovated St. Steven Church, beneath the mural of the parish patron created by Rhode. (Photo courtesy of Ashley Rhode)

The entire mural project, from the first conceptual drawings to the final product, took about three months. “These things, you get engulfed in them,” Geo said. “They become your life and you’re there for hours. It could be for 12 hours straight without really thinking about it.”

Noting that he’s inspired by God, prayer and the Bible, Geo said that his artwork is a marriage of the spiritual as well as classical and modern art. “I want the work to be able to speak to the average person,” he said.

The unique aspect of the mural of St. Steven is that it was not painted directly onto the ceiling of the church. “It was all conceived, designed and painted completely on the computer,” Geo said. He uses a tablet with a stylus and a software program called Sketch Book. Once the church approved his drawing, he began the painstaking process of painting it digitally. He then handpicked the canvas the mural was printed on. A professional installer placed the 22-foot painting on the church’s ceiling.

Fr. Pierre Hissey, pastor of St. Steven’s, said the mural was an important part of the overall renovation at the church. “We feel that people are not aware anymore of how important beauty and art really are,” he said. “They lend to our devotion and our ability to see God and feel the presence of God better.”

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted consecrated the new altar at the church and blessed the mural last month. “I am pleased with the enhancement of the church, especially the new mural depicting St. Steven’s victorious martyrdom, together with the new marble altar which truly focuses attention on the Eucharistic Sacrifice,” Bishop Olmsted said. “Attentiveness to details such as this help our people to appreciate the beauty of the Sacred Liturgy and the radiant brilliance of Christ our Savior.”