By Jeff Grant, The Catholic Sun
AVONDALE — When a visitor to St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Elementary School passes through the black, wrought-iron gates and into the center play area surrounded by the school’s two classroom floors, one of the first things he or she encounters is an area of artificial grass — the deep green hue contrasting with the building’s beige walls — and a statue of the Blessed Mother.
On the artificial surface before Mary is a life-size, blue-and-white layout of an item familiar to almost any Catholic.
“The rosary is such a big part of what we do as Catholics, and certainly as we journey with Christ,” explained Principal Cynthia Scheller “The message of what we are as a school and a parish — and our mission — comes through the minute you walk on our campus.”
The vehicle for that message now goes well beyond the rosary.
On Oct. 26, the school dedicated a mural depicting the rosary’s four sets of mysteries and the heavenly crowning of the Blessed Mother in a display of colorful artistry meant to draw the garden’s viewers into the lives of Jesus and Mary.
The 24-by-24-foot painting transformed what had been a blank wall into a collection of scenes of the Joyful, Sorrowful, Glorious, and Luminous mysteries all positioned around the crowning. The display creates what Scheller and Pastor Fr. John Muir hope will be a focal point for children, teachers, staff, and visitors to the 500-student school that opened in 2003 near Thomas and Litchfield roads.
Scheller said that for years she envisioned a rosary garden as a “Wow factor” for those entering the school.
“I knew schoolchildren could ‘walk’ the rosary, classrooms could pray as a class, and more than anything, what a beautiful scene for our students and parents to see twice a day as a reminder of Our Lady,” she explained.
Three years ago, she shared the idea with a former student and Eagle Scout, who agreed to construct the garden as his Eagle project.
It was finished in May 2021.
An artificial grass surface roughly 50 feet by 50 feet with a “rosary” laid out upon it, the “beads” are fashioned from concrete: each slightly bigger than the size of a large softball and painted white. The “Our Father” beads, are larger, just under the size of a bowling ball, and painted dark blue.
Organized activities occur in the space every May – as part of the May crowning of Mary – and in October, the month dedicated by the Church to the rosary.
The mural continues the theme of using art to connect with one’s Catholic faith.
Scheller discussed the idea with Fr. Muir, and the plan began to take shape.
Around that time, Cynthia’s husband, Matthew, a Grand Knight with the Knights of Columbus, Holy Family Council No. 11675, was attending a K of C meeting where he spoke to David Murrieta, a fellow parishioner and art teacher at St. Vincent de Paul Elementary School in west Phoenix. Murrieta had done artwork for area businesses, offices and restaurants, but this would be a bit larger.
“They talked about it, and David said he’d be honored to do it,” Cynthia said. “God always has a hand in everything and a plan.”
Cynthia and David met several times, reviewing sketches — Fr. Muir providing input — and Murrieta began work in June while pupils were on summer vacation. Murrieta did most of the painting himself, receiving some help from his two high-school-age daughters.
Working during the hottest part of the year had little effect on Murrieta’s efforts, despite the temperatures.
“It is a north-facing wall, entirely in the shade. (Still) I had to constantly spray water on my paint.”
The heat actually proved helpful when it came to the summer monsoon.
“The paint dried fast. I was worried the rain was going to cause it to run.”
However, Murrieta heeded the forecasts, allowing sufficient drying before any showers showed up.
A bigger challenge was deciding on the colors, but Murrieta used nightly reflections to guide him. Plus, Scheller and Fr. Muir wanted a lot of blue.
The color most associated with Mary, blue symbolizes her purity and obedience to God’s will.
If the project is designed to draw onlookers into a deeper relationship with Jesus and the Blessed Mother, it already has had a profound effect its artist, especially as he painted the scene of Jesus carrying the Cross, which depicts the Sorrowful Mysteries.
“When I was painting the thorns on the crown, I got emotional. I was in tears thinking about all the pain He went through. But I got a warm feeling in my heart at the same time. This is the most emotional painting experience I have ever had,” he said.
Though Murrieta had planned to paint without compensation, Scheller said the school couldn’t agree to that. St. Thomas Aquinas covered $1,100 – including a lift rental – while another $300 for paint and supplies was picked up by the Knights of Columbus.
“We are proud supporters of our Catholic grade school at St. Thomas Aquinas and knew the mural in the rosary garden would be a perfect addition to honor our Blessed Mother Mary,” stated Matthew Scheller, now Council 11675’s Deputy Grand Knight, in an email.
“Our brother Knight, David Murrieta, is a talented artist, and we have seen his beautiful work as a teacher at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Grade School and the religious murals he has completed at other locations. The beauty of (this) mural will allow the children to see the scenes of Jesus’ life and draw them closer to Him. The Knights’ donation is a small contribution to what we believe will have a lasting impact on the lives of those who encounter this work of art for many years to come. The Knights in our Council enjoyed the frequent updates from David and know it was an emotionally rewarding experience for him. The Knights are honored to be able to support this project and thank our Brother David for his outstanding work.”
Cynthia Scheller said the school’s portion of the costs were raised by students and their families, “dedicated to saying ‘thank you’ for his stewardship to the school and all those that encounter our beautiful place of learning how to be disciples of Christ.”
Murrieta is an art teacher at St. Vincent de Paul Elementary School near 51st Avenue and Thomas Road in west Phoenix. His efforts also further the tie between the two schools, which are about 12 miles apart. St. Vincent de Paul is run by the Daughters of Charity, a Vincentian Order.
Cynthia Scheller said there are plans to enhance the mural.
The next phase will involve framing each portrait of the Mysteries with small royal blue tiles to achieve a three-dimensional effect. The school also plans to put the statue of Mary on a “floating” platform. Scheller is recruiting two more Eagle Scouts for those projects.
The new mural already has made an impression on students.
“I love it. It’s amazing. It reminds me of how great Jesus is and what He did for us. I feel happy when I look at it. I just thought that was really cool (being able to see the mural’s daily progress),” said 5th-grader Rocco Lombardo, age 11.
“It is beautiful. It really represents the life of Jesus and how He suffered for us, but rose again, and how He is one part of the Holy Trinity,” added Rocco’s sister, Sarafina Lombardo, a 9-year-old 4th-grader.
“I am blessed to be at this school. Not every child gets to be at a private school. I am grateful I am here.”