Artist helps saints find their niche at Epiphany Church, Normal

Photo Caption: Sacred artist Neilson Carlin poses with six of the 12 paintings of saints he created for existing arched niches in the sanctuary of Epiphany Church in Normal. The paintings were installed Feb. 6.

By: By Tom Dermody

NORMAL — Those attending Mass at Epiphany Church here have a new and powerful reminder that we have impressive, unseen company around the table of the Lord.

Original paintings of 19 saints were installed last weekend in a dozen, arched marble niches that extend in both directions from the tabernacle at the back of the church sanctuary. The paintings are the finishing touch of an extensive church remodeling project otherwise completed in 2010.

Overseeing the installation Feb. 6 was the artist himself, Neilson Carlin, who resides near Philadelphia.

“This is probably the most complicated project I’ve worked on yet,” said Carlin, a professional painter already with an impressive resume of sacred art. His religious credits include four large pieces at the new Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and the official painting/logo for the World Meeting of Families this September in Philadelphia. That is the gathering that will bring Pope Francis to the U.S.

At Epiphany, Carlin’s newest paintings depict saints from the time of Christ (St. Peter and St. Paul) to the modern era (St. Gianna Molla and St. John Paul II), spanning 2,000 years and six continents. While some are familiar, such as World War II Nazi death camp martyr St. Maximilian Kolbe or St. Therese of Lisieux, others including St. Lorenzo Ruiz, the first Filipino saint, or St. Alphonsa Mattathupadathu, the first woman of Indian origin to canonized, may not be as well known locally.

“We have parishioners from India, Africa, Latinos, so we wanted to rope in the world instead of anyone’s particular favorite saints from Europe,” said Msgr. Eric Powell, pastor, who collaborated with Carlin on the project over the last 18 months.

While parishioners got their first look at the newly installed art last weekend — staying long after Masses to examine them up close and take photos — Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, will see the row of saints when he soon administers the sacrament of confirmation at the parish.

“It’s meant to look as if these saints are standing on a little porch,” Carlin explained in a presentation last Friday to students of Epiphany School. From the sanctuary steps, Carlin said that for the paintings “to make sense they need to be seen right here when you come up for Communion, so that when you receive the Body of Christ, you are participating in communion in the feast of the Lamb with 2,000 years of saints.”

By design, the paintings move outward from the altar chronologically — from the pillars of the church, St. Peter and St. Paul, to the modern saints at the edges “until you transition to the future saints in this church,” said Carlin with a nod toward the students seated in the pews.

With Epiphany School art instructor John Smyth in attendance, Carlin detailed the long, creative and technical process that went into the project. Before the first brush of oil paint was applied to the 77-inch tall wooden panels, there was an entire year of pencil drawings, taking measurements for the space, selecting colors, finding models and costumes to represent the saints, and more.

But Carlin, who in his youth hoped to illustrate comic books, did more than speak of art. He shared the story of his faith.

Baptized Catholic but raised in a Protestant denomination, he “slowly came into the fold” after meeting and marrying his wife. He was received into the church in the year 2000.

As he recognized the beauty of the Catholic faith, “it became serious for me as an artist to find some way to have my work be my vocation,” Carlin told the Epiphany students. A sculptor friend helped him become the painter commissioned for the Guadalupe shrine project, “the first big door to open for me.” Others would follow, including Epiphany Parish, where Carlin’s artistry was already prominent in the recent church remodeling. His duplication of an existing “Adoration of the Magi” painting is a focal point above the tabernacle, and he also painted the ceiling of the church’s adoration chapel.

Carlin made sure the colors selected for the saint project matched those in the Magi painting.

“Every church project is totally different,” he told The Catholic Post. “The location, the lighting, the color of the space — it’s a whole different set of considerations to make sure it looks like they were designed for this parish.”

Msgr. Powell said the paintings were also designed for this moment in time. St. Peter Faber was included because he is a favorite of Pope Francis. The parish plans to use the depicted saints and their backgrounds in future teaching.

Carlin, who was introduced at Masses over the weekend, told the Epiphany students that what he is doing is much more fulfilling than his youthful goal of illustrating comic books.

“What are comic books full of? Heroes with colorful costumes,” he said. “”I ended up doing that,” he said, looking back at the panels of saints. “They’re just the real heroes.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: More information about the artist can be found on his website,

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