Father Mike Mitchell realized he could draw with nearly photographic precision as a fifth grader, after sketching a classmate playing marbles at recess.
“I looked at (the finished drawing) and I said, ‘It looks just like him!’” recalled Father Mitchell, pastor of Our Lady of Divine Providence Church in Metairie. “Then I take it to my friend and say, ‘Peter, look! It looks just like you!’”
That youthful exuberance for putting life onto paper has never left Father Mitchell, who spent a successful 26 years as a graphic artist, draftsman, journalist and teacher before being ordained to the priesthood in 2005 at age 50.
“It’s a total relaxation – so much so that if I sit down (to draw), I’ll look up and say, ‘I think I have to eat lunch.’ When I sit down, I usually don’t stop,” said Father Mitchell, 56, surrounded by his original colored-pencil renderings of an Audubon Zoo hippopotamus, monkey and goat, whimsical portraits of his nieces and nephews, and indigenous people decked in feathered splendor.
Armed with his own photographs of wildlife, family members and friends, the talented priest takes bi-annual, five-day “art breaks” to a remote cabin in New Roads, turning out an original piece of art each day.
“My all-time favorite (medium) is the oil pastel,” Father Mitchell said. “You can get something so photo-realistic with it because you have so much control.”
Artistic gifts nurtured early
Father Mitchell’s artistic talents were honed from the time he was a preschooler growing up in Violet. The youngster found himself getting better and better at a daily challenge presented by his father.
“He would draw a line and say, ‘Make something out of it,’” said Father Mitchell, whose childhood idol was cartoonist Jack Kirby, co-founder of Marvel Comics.
“I wanted to go to New York City and draw Captain America, the Fantastic Four and all those characters,” he said. “That was the dream that kept me drawing.”
His next “a-ha” moment came during his junior year at St. Bernard High, when a realistic charcoal portrait of his older brother captured first place in the high school art show. “That’s when everybody else suddenly said, ‘Whoa! That’s really good!’” he said.
A career emerges
After graduating as St. Bernard High’s 1973 valedictorian, Father Mitchell spent a semester studying fine arts at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette before spotting a job opening from the U.S. Army seeking a graphic illustrator.
“The recruiter asked me, ‘Can you draw tanks and airplanes and Uncle Sam posters?’ I said, ‘Sure, I can draw anything I can see,’” recalled Father Mitchell, who spent three years at the Washington, D.C., assignment making charts, graphs and other visuals for army-related events at the White House and other governmental hubs.
Returning home to complete a degree in education from Louisiana State University, Father Mitchell landed his first post-college job designing decals for a Kenner graphic arts company and took on a four-year post as the art teacher and junior varsity basketball coach at his high school alma mater.
“The kids were fantastic artists down there. We would just dominate the parish art fairs,” said Father Mitchell, who relocated to Florida in 1986 to pursue a number of art-related positions, including airbrushing T-shirts for the beach crowd at Panama City, and doing computer graphics, editorial cartoons and his own cartoon strip for the Deerfield Beach Observer, the weekly newspaper of West Palm Beach. The latter gave Father Mitchell his first taste of using a computer as a drawing tool.
“The Macintosh computer was only two years old,” recalls Father Mitchell, who would electronically input his comic strip by drawing it with his computer mouse – scanners had not yet been invented. “My computer was this tiny little box.”
His job became easier in the early 1990s, when scanners and large color screens were his go-to tools as chief graphic artist for Lee County, Fla., for which he designed T-shirts, newsletters, brochures, name tags and billboards.
The priesthood could not have been a more unlikely option for Father Mitchell, whose parents left the church when he was 11. Yet in 1997, while working as a 3-D animator for court cases New Orleans, he accepted an invitation from Ronnie Alonzo – his mentor and former high school basketball and football coach – to attend a three-day Cursillo retreat.
“Suddenly there are all these Catholic men and they’re sharing their faith. I didn’t know they had anything like this in the Catholic Church,” recalled Father Mitchell, who was inspired by the faith-sharing of Cursillo facilitators, including Deacon Drea Capaci and Msgr. Henry Engelbrecht.
“I see Father Henry elevating the body of Christ, and I’m going, ‘That’s Jesus,’” said Father Mitchell, who had received the Eucharist prior to his parents’ split from the church. “I still had in my mind, ‘That is really Jesus, not just something that the Protestants do once a month as a symbol.’”
Eager to receive Communion, Father Mitchell went to confession and “30 years of muck and mire came out, with the tears and everything.” He started attending Mass, meeting weekly with his Cursillo group and enrolled in Our Lady of Lourdes’ RCIA program in preparation for his 1998 confirmation. The reconverted Catholic also began a habit of stopping at his parish’s adoration chapel each morning before his work commute from Violet to New Orleans.
Although the visits spurred him to get involved in Scripture study groups and the parish choir, he felt a nagging feeling in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.
“I said, ‘All right God. What do you really want me to do?’ And the word ‘priesthood’ popped into my head,” Father Mitchell recounts. Initial worries that he was “too old” to pursue a vocation were set aside when he read an account of a former military man who entered the seminary at 44 – an exact description of his own situation.
Sketchpad always open
Although his six years of priestly preparation at Notre Dame Seminary were rigorous, Father Mitchell found time to fulfill a request from his rector, then-Bishop Gregory Aymond, to design 12 billboards announcing the Jubilee Year of 2000.
As parochial vicar of St. Andrew and St. Ann parishes, and pastor of Our Lady of Divine Providence, Father Mitchell has continued to share his God-given gifts by designing prayer cards for friends’ ordinations and producing works of original art for countless archdiocesan efforts, including the “Lamb of God” sketch that graced last year’s vocation poster. As a gift to Notre Dame Seminary’s annual auction, he executed architecturally-accurate acrylic paintings of the seminary and St. Joseph Abbey on recycled seminary roof slates.
His drawings of physically and mentally challenged children reveal yet another ministry close to Father Mitchell’s heart: the monthly “God’s Special Children” Masses St. Francis Xavier, for which he has been principal celebrant since 2006. Fluency in American Sign Language, gained during his years in the army, gives Father Mitchell a special connection with deaf congregants, and he also makes an effort to teach signs to Our Lady of Divine Providence students at their weekly school Masses.
“If someone’s standing up there (in the sanctuary) talking, I’ve got a limit. But if they pull out something that gives me a visual, or even something I can touch, I’m going to learn more,” said Father Mitchell, who frequently uses his drawings as preaching aides during school homilies. At a recent school Mass, he taught students the sign language gestures for the new response, “And with your spirit.”
“That way,” he said, “they will never forget it!”
Beth Donze can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.