By Beth Donze
A river of many colors winds its way through a bed of gray gravel in the prayer garden outside St. Pius X’s adoration chapel.
The multi-hued stream – actually, a loose mosaic made up of 527 individually painted rocks – was the joint creation of every St. Pius student in grades pre-K3 through 7.
The young artists were challenged to paint a small rock with a word or emblem that captured the spirit of their pastor, Father Patrick Williams.
The results are dazzling.
“I painted a hat for ‘Father Pat in the Hat,’” said third grader Javier Rodriguez, referencing Father Williams’ well-known love for caps and hats.
The image of the hat-wearing priest is lodged in students’ minds for another reason: St. Pius’ early childhood teachers use it when they present reading lessons on words ending in “at.” One memorable exercise involves the sentence, “Father Pat in the Hat saw the cat and asked, ‘Who dat?’”
The extent to which students had absorbed their pastor’s teachings was on full display in the rock garden, with some of the stones trumpeting messages such as “Hope,” “Pray,” “Believe,” “Be Unique,” “Be Happy” and “Smile.”
After brainstorming ideas for her rock, third grader Claire Yoder said she decided to paint “Father Pat, saying the homily.”
The special garden reveals that even first graders are capable of grasping advanced theological concepts. For example, rather than simply painting her rock with a white disk to depict a consecrated host, first grader Libby Kate Daigle made sure to top the wafer with a cross.
Libby Kate’s classmate, Luc Rizzo, also painted a cross – tucked inside a red heart – to express the motivation behind Christ’s ultimate sacrifice: love.
First grader Rex Foti’s rock painting of a pink eraser was a bit more cryptic.
“It’s like the ones he talked about in Mass,” said Rex, recalling a recent homily in which Father Williams described his childhood excitement at receiving a fresh eraser at the beginning of every school year.
Other rocks captured little details the students had learned about Father Williams just by interacting with him on campus – tidbits such his love for pizza and the New Orleans Saints. One rock illustration shows the priest’s eyes peeping through a set of reading glasses.
Sixth grader Camille Tubre painted the sun on her rock to convey her appreciation for her pastor’s sense of humor.
“Father Pat always tells a joke at Mass that brightens my day,” explained Camille.
Fourth grader Wyatt Fontana also featured the sun on his rock, but for a different reason. Wyatt said Father Williams had taught him to “always see the beauty and light in everything.”
Knowing that Father Williams would be out of the parish for a couple of days attending the Louisiana Priests’ Convention, students had time to hatch their surprise and install the garden as a special welcome-home gift.
The art project was inspired by Linda Kranz’ book “Only One You,” which tells the story of the many ways people receive help along the way in life. After reading the story with their students, St. Pius art teachers Liz Gibbons and Cathy Vidos asked the children to think about life lessons Father Williams had taught them, and then portray one of them on a rock.
Third- and fourth-grade members of St. Pius’ art club installed the rock garden, formally named “The Gratitude Garden.” The river of rocks, which flows beneath a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, is marked by a hand-painted sign that reads: “There’s only one you in this great big world. Thank you, Father Pat, for making our world a better place!”
“It was really very touching that they would remember those things about me,” said Father Williams, who was given a professionally bound book on the project explaining the stories behind some of the rock paintings.
Father Williams said he walks by the chapel gardens – named in memory of his predecessor, Msgr. Clinton Doskey – several times a day. He especially likes how the rocks are arranged to suggest a curving river.
“I was very surprised,” Father Williams said. “I had no idea they were doing this!”