SPIRITUAL ARTWORK Intricate mosaic illustrates devotion
After years of planning and construction, St. Jude Thaddeus Church has revealed a colorful mosaic composed of almost 1 million minuscule pieces of glass from Italy.
The mural reaches almost three stories high on the wall behind the church’s altar. It depicts the 12 apostles of the Catholic faith along with four North American born saints, St. Juan Diego, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. Katharine Drexel and St. Kateri Tekakwitha. In the center of the mural, a circle of light, symbolizing the tabernacle, frames a 9-foot statue of Jesus.
“The decision to put a mosaic on that wall came as a way to get back to the original theme for the church over 40 years ago,” Father Tom Phelan said. “That theme is completely built around Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel ‘The Bread of Life.’”
A belief central to the Catholic faith holds that the bread served during Mass is transformed into the body of Christ, given up for the people as a means of forgiveness of sins.
St. Jude’s 715-square-foot mosaic stands about three stories tall, covering the main wall behind the altar. It consists of hundreds of thousands of tiny pieces of glass known as smalti tesserae, which are cut in Italy.
“We went with a company called Cavallini Co. Inc. They helped design the picture and then sent it to Italy so that it could get cut. Once it came back to the U.S., it was installed here by their artists,” Phelan said.
Cavallini is based in San Antonio and was founded in 1953. Beaumont is home to several pieces the company has worked on, including stained-glass designs in St. Jude’s chapel, stained glass in the McFadden Ward House and hurricane-resistant stained glass at St. Anthony’s Cathedral.
The process of bringing the mosaic to St. Jude’s began near the end of 2017 when Phelan met with Cavallini owner and president Adrian J. Cavallini to develop the design.
After the approval of the design in February 2018, it was sent to Italy to be cut. In September, the unassembled mosaic pieces rode on a boat for almost six weeks in a voyage across the ocean back to the United States.
“The biggest issue we had was trying to assemble the mosaic around the existing 9-foot tall statue of Christ,” Cavallini said. “It was by far the biggest mosaic I personally have ever worked on. We never would have completed the project on time if it weren’t for my son.”
Cavallini’s son, whom he described as a master of the artform, served as primary leader on the project.
Cavallini said the assembly of such an elaborate mosaic is exacting. As small but crucial a detail as too much or too little water in the mix as the pieces are set in place could ruin the whole thing.
The words “I am the bread of life” are inscribed on the mural between the two clusters of saints. At the top of the mural, in front of a space colored with shades of blue, red and yellow, a 6-foot crucifix is suspended.
The crucifix is transparent so that the swaths of color formed by the mosaic tiles behind it are visible.
“The point of the crucifix is really to tie all of the aspects of Catholicism together without being overbearing and taking away from the main message of Christ being the bread of life,” Phelan said.
Since the unveiling of the mosaic, the church has received positive feedback.
“I got to see the piece at every stage of the process,” said Kelly Broussard, a church parishioner. “The first time I saw it was at night and I didn’t have any words for how beautiful it was. But then I saw it again when the sun was coming through the windows and hitting it, and it brought tears to my eyes.”
The idea for the mosaic originated with Phelan, who wanted to change the “monochromatic” feel of the church.
First he began using the original altar again. Then he removed the massive wooden cross that sat next to the statue of Jesus. The wooden cross is now being transformed into smaller crosses for parishioners, Broussard said.
Finally, Phelan pitched the idea of the mosaic, which was then drafted and set into motion.
“In the Catholic faith, it is a tradition to tell the stories through art and the way the space is decorated,” Broussard said. “I believe the mosaic has really enhanced the sacred space of the church.”