Michael Madden, a parishioner at St. Mary Immaculate Church in Elora, Ont., made sure the Easter season was celebrated at church despite the pandemic. He constructed a cross that was erected on the fifth Sunday of Lent and painted purple, then red for Palm Sunday, and finally decorated with flowers for Easter Sunday. Photo courtesy Michael Madden

The signs of the cross keep church a welcoming presence

  • May 15, 2020

The doors may be locked at St. Mary Immaculate Church in Elora, Ont., but Christ is still open and welcoming parishioners.

Michael Madden has made sure of that with his COVID-19 Cross, which went up outside the small church where he’s a parishioner during the heart of Lent.

“Once it became clear we wouldn’t be able to gather in our church, it was like, is that it? Is that all that we as a Christian community witness to?” said Madden, an award-winning art director in the film industry whose long list of credits include the TV series Mrs. America, Reign and The Listener, and films such as Fahrenheit 451, Shazam and The War With Grandpa.

As an artist, Madden has a keen interest in worship space design and liturgical design, and in 2012 did a Masters at Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music in worship and the arts. Though his main work is in the film industry, he also does some liturgical work. He designed the stages at Downsview Park and the Exhibition grounds, as well as the Way of the Cross up University Avenue, for World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto.

Madden understands why churches need to be closed to fight the virus’ spread, “but I thought surely we can be more creative in terms of our presence within the community.” He remembered Pope Francis reflecting on the image of Christ in the Book of Revelation and Jesus knocking at the door.

“Francis then said, OK, obviously He’s on the outside looking to enter, but I wonder about the times where Jesus is on the inside knocking to be let out. Will we let Him out?” said Madden.

Then came John’s Gospel for the fifth Sunday of Lent, when Jesus removes the stone from where Lazarus is buried and raises him from the dead.

“That started me thinking, there’s a cross way up at the top of the steeple, maybe we need to have that cross down in the midst of the community and transcending the threshold of the church,” he said.

The cross was constructed with a two-by-six upright and 3/8-inch plywood on the horizontals and stands at the door of the church, not laid upon the steps, to draw people in.

“We as a community have picked up our crosses and are carrying it as a sign that Christ is present in the midst of this and not just behind closed doors,” he said.

It’s a living monument to the faith that constantly underwent change throughout the Lenten and Easter seasons. Madden said it was painted purple for the fifth Sunday of Lent, changing to red and dressed with branches and greens for Passion Sunday. On Good Friday it was adorned with a crown of thorns and for Easter was transformed into the Tree of Life with flowers and greens.

Pastor Fr. Gordian Okpuruka appreciates the cross and has been supportive of the project since Madden approached him before Holy Week with his idea. He said it will remain up until the lockdown is over or until the end of the Easter season, whichever comes first.

“I saw this as a good way of witnessing to the faith especially at a time when the world is going through very difficult and uncertain times and when people can no longer go to their places of worship to express and practise their faith,” said Okpuruka. “I want to believe that it has also been a good expression of faith as a parish community and a people of hope that even in the darkest of times and when we couldn’t come together in our usual way to worship and pray, we could still find other concrete and good ways to express our faith and witness to the power of the Risen Lord.”

The cross has been drawing people to the parish. Lynn Kraemer, whose husband Eugene helped Madden construct the cross, said it’s helped keep people in touch with each other and has “become a proclamation of our faith.”

Kraemer said many parishioners said it helped them in their Lenten journey, others have lefts notes at the foot of the cross and one woman even wept at the foot of the life-sized cross when the crown of thorns was added.

“It drew us together at the heart of who we strive to be — our faith, our religion, the reason we come together in non-COVID times,” said Kraemer, who has been a parishioner for nearly 37 years and taught for 18 years at the parish school. “There were no words needed, no grand homilies or proclamations. The cross spoke to each of us, on our own personal journeys, to our individual hearts.”

Madden has enjoyed sharing this with people walking and driving by who stop for a chat. He’s received plenty of positive feedback from people who have said “how meaningful it was for them.” And at a time when for many the only connection they have with their church is in the virtual world, it helped to bring the faith to life with one of the Church’s most beloved symbols.

“With the YouTube Masses sometimes it feels like the kids are down in the rec room and the parents have put the DVD on, here, go watch that. Which is all well and good but it just felt, we have this treasure trove of symbols, very powerful symbols, and it just felt that we could be creative in a way on the streetscape and not just in the virtual realm,” he said.

Madden hopes the cross can become more of a fixture in parish life, perhaps erecting it again next Lent when the church is open. The horizontals are high enough for people to walk under and he thinks it can serve as a symbol of the Easter season while also reminding parishioners of their recent past.

“It’s the Tree of Life, that’s what it’s become. That’s our Easter story.”

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