LENT: Drawn by Faith

Stations of the Cross paintings a gift to parish in missionary priest’s 50th jubilee year

By Christina Gray

Lead writer, Catholic San Francisco

The parking lot of Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Daly City is now something of a permanent gallery for the artwork of priest-in-residence Father Rey Culaba.

The Redemptorist priest and lifelong artist took up his brush to paint new Stations of the Cross icons for the parish after gusty winds tore the originals from their weathered outdoor moorings last year.

Father Domingo Orimaco said he immediately thought of asking Father Culaba to do replacement paintings. The pastor invited the 75-year-old priest to help with Mass and sacraments at the parish four years ago. “We are so privileged that he agreed to do it.”

The evocative acrylic paintings on weather-resistant redwood were installed just before Lent on the 14 tall wooden crosses that ring the parish lot. The parish community was invited to a preview exhibit in the church a few weeks earlier.

“God called me as I am,” said Father Culaba, a calming presence with a preacher’s voice and a boyish smile. He celebrates his 50th year as a missionary priest this year. “Being an artist came with the package.”

This “drone-like” perspective was intentional, said Father Culaba, and is also a technique of Asian artists. He chose to avoid showing faces so viewers could identify with each character and scene in their own mind’s eye.

The paintings are really prayers in paint, he said. He asked the Holy Spirit to “take over” the process, and when other thoughts interfered, “I would stop.”

Father Culaba was born and raised in Baclaran, a neighborhood near Manila, Philippines. He was ordained there in 1972 into the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, commonly known as the Redemptorists.

His are not traditional depictions of Christ’s passion. The faceless paintings place the viewer behind the scenes, as if one were among the crowd walking behind the cross to Calvary. Or in some cases, above it, like God’s own witness of the crucifixion of his son.

He and his siblings were encouraged to draw as children, and his older sister went to university to study fine arts with nationally renowned artists. She returned home to share her skills and knowledge with her younger brothers.

“Everything she learned she would teach us,” he said, including wood cuts, charcoal, acrylic, oils, watercolor and more.

For a time, Father Culaba toyed with the idea of studying fine arts himself. His sister dissuaded him.

“She said I would not be able to support a family,” he said with a laugh.

For the Stations series, Father Culaba did not work sequentially.

“I started with this one,” he said, holding up the fourth Station of the Cross: Jesus Meets His Mother. “I wanted to dedicate this project to our Blessed Mother.”

Mother and son are seen from behind, Mary’s spotless white robe conceals the mutual agony of their meeting. All that is seen are Jesus’ bloodied hands grasping her neck.

Sharp slash marks in the paint down to raw wood characterize Jesus in the paintings. This was not done simply for the textured effect it produced, according to Father Culaba.

“While cutting into the wood, I wanted to actually feel his pain,” he said.

Father Culaba pointed to a painting of the crucified Christ by St. Alphonsus of Liguori as an influence. The founder of the Redemptorist order was an accomplished artist in his own right.

Being a priest or being an artist has not been a choice Father Culaba has had to make. He has been able to do both, one often supporting the other.

“I was lucky to have been affirmed with a gift, even within my congregation,” he said. “I had superiors who encouraged me to paint and express myself.”

His gift helped him gain the interest of rural villagers when he was a young missionary priest in the Philippines.

“My way of advertising the missions was to sit in public and sketch people,” he said. “That would gather a crowd.”

A stack of dog-eared papers in a box at the Our Lady of Mercy rectory revealed the faces of some of the souls he met there: smiling young mothers with their babies, curious toddlers, skeptical-eyed teenagers and more.

Father Culaba was sent to the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley (now a program of Santa Clara University) to continue his studies.

He was greatly encouraged by his professors there, notably the late Jesuit Father William Fulco, who required a weekly written assignment for a course on the Psalms. Father Culaba always turned in an illustrated reflection to go with it.

“He soon told me to forget about the paper and just do the illustrations,” he said.

Father Culaba’s Psalm reflection artworks became an exhibit at the Flora Hewlett Library, the Graduate Theological Union’s main library in Berkeley.

Another professor, Jesuit Father Terrence Dempsey, the founding director of the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art at St. Louis University, facilitated an exhibit of his young student’s pen and ink drawings of Gospel passages.

Throughout his priesthood, Father Culaba has brought pastoral artistry into service for his vocation. Many visible signs remain of his 12 years at St. Paul of the Shipwreck Parish in San Francisco under Franciscan Father Jim Goode, including a gallery-size portrait of the late Martin Luther King Jr.

Some do not remain, such as the “Planks and Pieces” cross he designed for the front of the church, removed by a succeeding pastor. Made from scrap wood parts brought to him by congregation members on Good Friday, the cross commemorated parish namesake St. Paul and his story of faith as told in the Book of Acts. His trust in God saved St. Paul and fellow passengers from near-certain death after they shipwrecked on the island of Malta.

Despite the parish’s pleasure in his new paintings, Father Culaba deflects any personal acclaim for them.

“Not to sound too pious,” he said. “But I did this only for the greater glory and honor of God.”

Photos by Debra Greenblat/Archdiocese of San Francisco.