You never know when you’ll need art.When Passionist Father Patrick Brennan, director of Mater Dolorosa Retreat Center in Sierra Madre, decided to change the entryway of the center’s chapel about 10 years ago, that remodel opened up not only the space for worship, but it also presented opportunities for art.“There was emptiness behind where the sanctuary used to be and I knew something needed to be there,” he says.An art committee was formed and commissioned an image of the Risen Christ by artist John Nava in a similar style found in his beautiful Tapestries of the Saints at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.But once done, vacant spaces lingered under two arches on either side of the powerful image — empty canvases for just the right piece of art.For years, Father Brennan and his committee examined options, artists and styles. Nothing seemed to click. The project was put on the proverbial back burner.Then, earlier this year, Father Brennan walked into a beverage shop in downtown Sierra Madre where a young artist was painting a mural on a soon-to-be-opened wine tasting room. The beautiful bucolic landscape — blending the nearby San Gabriel Mountains with a Tuscan vineyard view — was inspired by the color palette and style of Diego Rivera, and it captured Father Brennan’s attention. “We just started talking,” says Father Brennan. “I liked what he was doing and he seemed agreeable. We decided to get together and talk about the project.”For the artist, Sierra Madre resident George Rhode, the meeting in the nascent wine tasting room was a pivotal moment. “I am not a Catholic, but I respect and understand the rich history of art and the church throughout the years,” he says. “The opportunity to work on such a project was fantastic.”After discussions, portfolio reviews and meetings, Rhode was officially commissioned to undertake the chapel project which would bring to life six Passionist saints in two murals. Painted on canvas, each mural is about seven feet wide and 52 inches high.For more than four months, Rhodes researched the saints, examining reference materials, old photographs and other artist’s renderings. The idea was to present these holy people as authentic, “saints that look like real people, real lives and real history,” he says.Father Brennan was insistent on including two female saints in the project, giving the murals a mixed quality of old and young, male and female. Given their Passionist connections, most of these saints are Italian.Last month, Rhode took a nearly completed first mural to show to Father Brennan and the staff at Mater Dolorosa. As he unfurled the large canvas piece, there were gasps along with oohs and ahhs. “I like how you captured the halos that make them translucent,” said Father Brennan admiring Rhode’s work. “Oh, it’s going to look fantastic once it’s installed!”This mural contains images of St. Paul of the Cross, the founder of the Passionists, with Italian mystic St. Gemma Galgani, who received the stigmata later in her young life, and St. Vincent Strambi, an Italian bishop in the early 1800s known for his charitable work for orphans and the elderly.As soon as the finishing touches are done with this mural, Rhode will start on the second mural which will feature portraits of St. Gabriel Possenti, a student for the priesthood who died at the age of 23 from tuberculosis; 19th century Irish cleric St. Charles of Mount Argus; and St. Maria Goretti, one of the youngest saints to be canonized who died from multiple stab wounds by an intended rapist.“I like how George brings these people to life with their faces,” says Father Brennan. “And what he has done is extraordinary; it just takes my breath away. You can see power as well as a sense of peace in the eyes of these saints. You can see how connected they are to God.”Rhode came to the project with an impressive resume. He painted an intricate ceiling mural at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas; a 1960s style diner wall at nearby Harrah’s Casino; a 27,000-square-foot decorative mural at a Hidden Valley estate; lovely jacaranda trees at the Four Seasons; and a mural project for Dave Murdoch of the Dole Corporation. He started his career as a graphic designer and worked on various accounts including Taco Bell before he went solo as an artist.“To paint people who have lives dedicated to God is a true honor,” says Rhode. Today, he observes, one has to “wade through so much garbage” in the art world to find projects and art pieces that truly are inspirational and uplifting.“Researching and learning about these people’s lives through their stories and actually seeing old photographs of them really brought it all home,” he says. “I wanted to capture them physically, spiritually as well as artistically.”It is hoped that the project will be completed and installed this fall so that retreat-goers can be inspired by the artwork.“I have enjoyed this process, meeting Father Brennan and all the people associated with the retreat center,” says Rhode. “I can’t think of a better patron of the arts than Mater Dolorosa. It’s truly a special place and I’m grateful that I am now connected to it.” {gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2012/0907/sgmater/{/gallery}