By Dan Russo
AMES — At St. Cecilia School, faculty, students and parents strive every day to live out the teaching of Christ in an environment that radiates with faith and love. When Sara Rooney took over as principal last year, she noticed almost immediately that the gray walls and other staid physical aspects of the facility didn’t seem to reflect the school’s vibrant spirit.
“When I came here, I didn’t think it was visible to any visitor or newcomer,” recalled Rooney.
In 2018, the school was looking for a fund-a-need project to focus on at the 2018 St. Cecilia Gala, an annual fundraiser. Rooney advocated for a beautification project that would enhance school spirit. Other community leaders joined in the effort, including Tim Read, an Ames-based graphic artist and children’s book illustrator. He and his wife, Barbara, have been parents at St. Cecilia since 2009 and still have two sons who are students.
Read received a commission from the school to create original works to be put on display, including a 30-foot mural in the gym and multipurpose room that was unveiled to the students Aug. 28.
Allie Grandgenett, a fifth-grade student, said “everyone was pretty surprised” when they saw the piece for the first time.
“I like that the mural represents our school,” said Grandgenett. “I like how it shows what we do. I like the blessing of the animals the best.”
Asking God to “guide his hands and his heart,” Read also relied on prayers from the community as he went about his work.
“I knew it wasn’t just me,” said Read when describing his creative process. “I had the prayers of the children and adults behind me. We really wanted to do something to raise the school spirit. School spirit isn’t just about athletic teams. It’s about the culture of the school.”
In order to get a sense of that culture, Read met with students and asked them what school spirit meant to them. The preschool through fifth-grade students, about 170 in all, expressed a variety of views.
“There are a lot of things that students said that surprised me,” said the principal. “They talked about kindness, and they said St. Cecilia was a place that they felt safe.”
Based on the feedback, Read used his skills with digital design to create a kid-friendly piece for the gym which incorporates the traditions of the school, shows students and has Jesus at the center.
“This is a legacy for my family for the school,” reflected the artist. “I prayed over the project quite a bit.”
The mural depicts events held at the school such as the annual blessing of pets to mark the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi and a yearly talent show. It also shows students reading at Mass, playing and singing, among other activities. The only adults in the mural are saints like St. Francis or St. Cecilia, who is the patron saint of music.
The piece includes an image of Mary and the baby Jesus that is based on a sculpture that sits outside St. Cecilia School. “Madonna of the Schools” is a statue that was made for St. Cecilia by the famous sculptor Christian Petersen. He was the first artist in residence at Iowa State University and was a covert to Catholicism.
Once Read finished the design using computers, the mural was transferred onto a sticker-like vinyl material by a local sign company. The company’s employees then installed it on the wall.
An open house for St. Cecilia Parish members who wanted to view the mural was held Sept. 22.
Although the mural is the largest part of the beautification project, it is only one aspect of the ongoing effort.
The school’s gray interior was repainted yellow and teachers painted accent walls in their classrooms of different colors.
Read is in the process of completing over a dozen original icons that are being displayed around the school. Most depict saints who have some connection to children or education. Sister Thea Bowman, a religious on the road to canonization, is also part of the icon collection. She was selected, in part, because of a personal connection to the artist’s family.
“She was an instructor at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wisconsin, for two of my wife’s sisters,” explained Read. “She was a Franciscan nun with two of my wife’s aunts in La Crosse.”
Aside from finishing the icons, Read is also in the process of making designs of quotes and individual words that will be placed on walls around the school. The ones he is selecting have to do with the school’s spirit. Rooney reports that the mural has already helped inspire people.
“It strikes up a lot of conversations that tie us back to our Catholic identity,” said the principal. (The students) see themselves in the mural as well.”
Grandgenett feels the mural and other art does indeed express the school’s spirit.
“I think St. Cecilia School is … love and faith and learning. We’re all just a community,” she said.
Workers from First Class Signs, a business in Ames, install the mural in St. Cecilia School’s gym. (Contributed photo)