Ken Woo's new apse paintings depict the crucifixion, with the Blessed Mother and St. John standing at the foot of the Cross on either side at Toronto’s Holy Family Church. Photo from Holy Family Church

Fr. Raymond J. De Souza: Church offers fresh devotion through art and the Passion

  • September 12, 2018

I am looking forward to my next visit to Holy Family Church on King Street West in Toronto. It was my home for two years in the 1990s when I was a student at St. Philip’s Seminary, which is attached to the parish. 

The church burned down in June 1997, between my first and second year there. It was rebuilt in 2001, but it was only last month that the apse decoration was completed. There’s a good lesson in that; the proper decoration of a church takes time, and there is nothing wrong with waiting a generation or two until the proper design arrives and resources are sufficient for something magnificent.

The new art meets that standard. The artist, Ken Woo, was profiled earlier this summer in The Register. The new apse paintings depict the crucifixion, with the Blessed Mother and St. John standing at the foot of the Cross on either side.

Below the upper panel depicting Calvary, there are two angels and the various instruments of the Passion. Every pilgrim brings his own piety to the sacred art he encounters, and I was delighted to see that the Woo paintings chose to depict the instruments of the Passion.

In 2000, when Fr. David Roche, then Holy Family’s pastor, was choosing the original decoration for the apse and the tabernacle, he had the idea of capturing somehow the Great Jubilee. I was in Rome at the time for my theology studies, having already completed my philosophy at St. Philip’s. 

Fr. David got in touch and had the idea of installing panels for the tabernacle that would evoke the Holy Door of St. Peter’s Basilica, the opening of which marks the beginning of the Jubilee Year. My job was to find small replicas of the 16 panels on the Holy Door at the religious goods stores near the Vatican. And so I was pleased to play a little part in the Holy Door coming to Holy Family and serving as a portal to the “holy of holies,” the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle.

I spent a lot of time before the Holy Door at St. Peter’s, both during the Jubilee Year and afterwards, often explaining the meaning of the biblical scenes to pilgrims. During the Jubilee of Mercy, as a “missionary of mercy” one of the talks I gave most often was on the Holy Door panels, and how they show that God’s mercy can be both tender and violent, sometimes an invitation and sometimes more coercive. So the “holy door” at Holy Family makes me feel literally at home. 

Now the new paintings at Holy Family emphasize another dimension of the piety of my Roman years — the instruments of the Passion. (This time, though, I had nothing to do with the project.)

When in Rome, one of the churches I visited most frequently was Il Gesu, the mother church of the Jesuits. I went there to pray before the relic of St. Francis Xavier countless times, the same relic that visited Canada earlier this year. The great painting in the apse depicts the conferral of the Holy Name of Jesus (the official title of the church). And there above the Holy Family are the angels holding the instruments of the Passion. I prayed before that image so often during my seminary years that I chose it for my ordination holy card.

Another favoured Roman spot for me was the Bridge of the Angels, which I walked across every day coming back from class during my graduate studies. The bridge is adorned with 10 angels sculpted in the style of two angels carved by Bernini, but thought too splendid to be left outdoors. Each angel holds an instrument of the Passion. I traversed that bridge so often that I composed a Via Crucis of 10 stations rather than 12, one for each instrument-bearing angel.

Woo’s painting departs from the traditional depiction of angels holding the instruments, opting instead just for two angels, with a collection of instruments of the Passion suspended above them. And here we find presentation of the instruments that is familiar and new. 

The familiar instruments are there on the right side: the nails, the crown of thorns, the lance. But on the left side we see a grouping of “instruments” that includes the rooster, the water jug that Pilate used to wash his hands, the torch of the temple guard that arrests Jesus in Gethsemane. These are instruments which afflicted Jesus’ soul, as it were, in addition to the instruments which afflicted His body: the betrayal of Peter and Judas, the cowardliness of Pilate, and conspiracy of the chief priests.

So I expect to encounter there a new interpretation of an existing devotion. Every pilgrim brings his own piety. I encourage you to discover what you will bring, or what the new paintings will bring to you.

(Fr. de Souza is editor-in-chief of and a pastor in the Archdiocese of Kingston.)

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