William Kurelek painted the mural in St. Thomas More chapel in eight days, fasting the whole time. The work was revealed to the community in January 1976. (Brigid Ward photo)
SASKATOON — On Sept.18, Geri Hall delivered a talk to members of the St. Thomas More worshipping community about the William Kurelek mural that adorns the north end of St. Thomas More chapel. Hall was the 2013 STM Distinguished Alumna and currently holds the position of Director of Education for Holy Trinity Catholic School Division in Moose Jaw.
The talk was organized to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the mural. It was both historical and personal, as in 1976 Hall was asked by Basilian Father Kevin Kirley if she would volunteer as Kurelek’s student assistant on the project.
The mural was originally commissioned to celebrate the 40th anniversary of St. Thomas More College and the 50th anniversary of the Newman Centre. Kurelek was chosen because he was a more traditional figurative painter, and the Basilians wanted the work to be representational rather than abstract. The themes were chosen before the artist arrived: the mural was to illustrate the miracle of the loaves and fishes, while maintaining a theme of prairie history and settlement. It also needed to include a portrait of St. Thomas More and Cardinal Newman.
Hall explained how these elements were included and the symbolism that Kurelek employed to tie the biblical stories, the historical figures, and the college itself together in one work.
Christ is the central figure, performing the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. The figures around him are not, however, the apostles, but portraits of the Basilians who were at the college while the mural was being painted. The First Nations people, the Métis people, and the first wave of settlers to the province are represented in the group on the left-hand side of the mural. This group includes portraits of Gabriel Dumont and Bishop Charlebois.
On the right-hand side are the second wave of settlers, each represented by their traditional national dress. Along the bottom of the mural are depictions of modern people, listening to and learning from St. Thomas More and Cardinal Newman. These include portraits of members of the STM community, such as Steven Gradish (who had recently passed away), Ernie McCullough, Margaret Dutli, Sister Mary Loyola, Margot King and Hall herself.
Kurelek also wanted his mural fit thematically into the space. He integrated design and architectural aspects of the chapel into the composition of the mural. To illustrate, Hall pointed out how the border and edging emulated parts of the existing Lionel Thomas mural (1956) depicting the Blessed Virgin surrounded by angels.
Hall said that Kurelek’s artistic influences were the Renaissance painters Pieter Brueghel the Elder and Hieronymus Bosch. Both of these painters produced works with crowds of figures, and intense detail; the stylistic influences are obvious in the mural at STM.
Hall said that Kurelek worked in secret, and the mural came together over a matter of only eight days. Students were told that the chapel was undergoing renovations, and it was only when the work was complete that anyone other than the Basilians and Hall even knew what was happening in the chapel. The artist seems to have also related to his commission as a contemplative undertaking: he fasted for the entire time he painted, living at the college with the Basilian Fathers while he worked, and ultimately donated his fee to charity.
The mural was completed on Jan. 22, 1976, and on Jan. 25 it was revealed to the community.