Hugh Gibbons is a CAFOD volunteer from Bracknell in the Portsmouth diocese who has led several community art projects to spread the word about Blessed Oscar Romero’s life and legacy.
I think he’d smile. Art with its sleeves rolled up is how I like to think of my offbeat contribution to the tributes for Romero in an unplanned series of good-natured portraits seen by thousands of people – indoors and out. And there’s been a flow of good stories for the local press and beyond.
The starting point was a visit to Stonyhurst College in Lancashire four years ago. The Librarian Jan Graffius is also the conservator of Romero’s relics in the little museum in the Divina Providencia Hospital in San Salvador. Not bones, but telling items such as three pairs of socks, a manual typewriter, spare spectacles – and blood-stained vestments.
On Jan’s I spotted a small triptych of Romero’s life by an up-country artist. Something clicked. I’m not an artist. But painting on wood in blocks of bright Salvadoran colours seemed something I could have a go at – and many school and parish for that matter.
So I scaled up the familiar little CAFOD Memorial Cross as Romero 1.0 in our porch, to welcome all visitors.
A cross for all weathers
Romero 2.0 quickly followed – but 2 metres high! ‘Big Oscar’ was a present for St Francis of Assisi parish in South Ascot as a thank you for 50 years of CAFOD support. The cross was ‘ruggedized’ to withstand the weather in its setting on the outside of the church, so that all the passing public could enjoy and gain something from it. And there was room for Romero with trademark eyebrows and glasses.
Aspire not to have more but to be more
Romero 3.0 was a result of thinking laterally – literally. In 2013 St Margaret Clitherow Primary School set up a gallery of big figures to the school hall. Each year group chose an individual which was then painted in Salvadoran style. It’s a permanent backdrop to happenings in the hall and an extra education resource.
At the school painting Romero wears a pair of socks from the museum and holds up a familiar CAFOD postcard: “Aspire not to have more but to be more”. His school hall companions include Isaac Newton, Malala Yousafzai, David Beckham, Florence Nightingale, and the Good Samaritan high-fiving with The Queen (generating a right Royal thank-you for the school).
Last year my parish priest Fr Danny McEvoy encouraged us to set up a Spirit of Romero Gallery of Good Examples in our parish hall. Our Confirmation candidates chose who should be included as a ‘good example’ and they include Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and St Josephine Bahkita – as well as Brian O’Driscoll, Demi Lavato, Mary Berry and Gordon Ramsey (in marathon-runners’ kit). Romero 4.0 has his postcard again, wears another pair of socks from the museum and carries a wooden ruler – an allusion to his early training as a carpenter.
Romero as a community inspirer
And this March, Oscar 5.0 has been central to something unique to our parish and town. Once again it’s from thinking not only outside the box but outside the church. The railings of St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School in the town centre are the home of the eye-catching Bracknell Community Gallery of Greeters & Inspirers. The 30+ weatherproofed portraits are on view 24/7 to tens of thousands of passers-by. Our community ‘greeters and inspirers’ have gained much praise for bringing spirit to the area. The portraits were painted by all sorts of local good sports, some of whom had never been near a paintbox.
My own panel shows Oscar with the Pope, dancing down Mount Tabor. He’s given Francis some of his carpentry tools, and a big question mark. And he’s shared the third and final pair of museum socks with the Pope.
Oscar would approve of his ‘greeter and inspirer’ companions. By chance, there’s a strong element of voices for social justice such as Mandela, Malala, Henri Dunant, the International Red Cross, Medecins Sans Frontieres, Daniel Barenboim, Emma Watson, and Mahatma Gandhi. But Richard Tauber, Harry Potter and Van Gogh are there too.
We’re aspired to be more, and in the process have more.