By Richard Meek

The Catholic Commentator  

As an impressionable young seminarian, Father Joshua Johnson said that on one of his first visits to the Catholic Life Center he was taken aback by a large mural dominating a wall in the lower level of the CLC.  

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A mural painted by noted artist Adele Brent was removed from the Catholic Life Center on Feb. 21. The mural, which was completed in 1970, featured African-Americans and whites, but what many people found offensive was the depiction of a priest blessing a Confederate flag. Photo by Richard Meek | The Catholic Commentator 

 

Titled “Religious History of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, the mural, completed in 1970 and painted by Adalie Brent, who was commissioned and paid $5,400 by Bishop Robert E. Tracy, features several scenes depicting African-Americans and whites portrayed in various ways. But what Father Johnson and many others, both white and black, have found most offensive through the years is the portrait of a priest blessing the Confederate flag.  

“Artwork has the capacity to draw people to Jesus, draw us to become disciples of the Lord,’ said Father Johnson, pastor of Holy Rosary Church in St. Amant and the only African-American priest in the diocese. “But artwork has the capacity to push us away and be a barrier.”  

The priest is a representation of French priest Father Francis Mittlebronn, who served Pointe Coupee civil parish during the Civil War. Father Mittlebronn was a slave owner and reported to be a Confederate supporter.  

According to reports from that time, he blessed the flag in spite of a warning by Union troops and was ultimately arrested and imprisoned.  

“All I know is every time I came to the Catholic Life Center I was repulsed by that painting,” Father Johnson said. “Was it a part of historical reality? Yes, but why was it in the diocese?  

“That flag is a symbol of oppression to so many of us. It’s pretty disgusting.” 

Shortly after the Alton Sterling shooting in 2016 and the racial unrest that followed, Father Johnson approached then – Bishop Robert W. Muench, about removing the painting. This came at a time when the bishop was forming the Racial Harmony Commission, of which Father Johnson and Father Tom Clark SJ, pastor at Immaculate Conception Church in Baton Rouge, are co-chairs.  

Bishop Muench agreed, and after he retired, Bishop Michael G. Duca concurred the painting should come down. 

The dream of Father Johnson and many others became reality on the morning of Feb. 21 when a crew from the CLC carefully removed the mural. Although there are no definite plans, the artwork will likely be displayed in the archives building.  

“It is a part of our history,” said Ann Bolton, archivist for the Diocese of Baton Rouge.  

Dr. Marchita Mauck, a retired professor of art history at LSU who helped guide the diocese through the removal process, believes that even without the flag the painting would still have racial elements. She said the painting has what she calls a “primitive side” and a “sophisticated side.”  

She explained that on one side are a Native American along with the three African-American children, separated from three white children on the other side.  

“I think some people could look at it as some sort of a control feature,” she said. “(The African-American children) are in their place.”  

She said on the sophisticated side, where the white children are, there is more of a wholesome, even holy air, including a road in the background that speaks of an unlimited future.  

“I would not say it was deliberate but it was the temper of the times,” Mauck said. “When you have the Native American standing behind the black children, the Native American is always, at a symbolic level, the noble savage. That’s going to be primitive.  

“It’s a (subtle) way of saying that the (African-American) children come out of a savage background. It’s almost like a connection.”  

Father Clark agreed the Confederate flag is a symbol of segregation and white supremacy. He noted that when the issue of the mural arose, there was some discussion among Racial Harmony Commission members about how the diocese can be welcoming of all people and celebrate the rich diversity within the diocese.  

“The presence of the mural with the Confederate flag and the history that it represents is an unwelcoming symbol here in the Catholic Life Center, which is the center of the diocese,” Father Clark said. “We want the (Catholic Life Center) to be a very welcoming and inclusive place.”  

“Certainly there has been a movement in the country to become more aware of what some of the (Confederate) monuments and symbols mean and what they mean to people who were oppressed by those symbols,” he added. “I think sometimes that voice was lost but that voice is being heard more.”  

Mauck believed the mural had the potential to be a “troublemaker” to the diocese. She said someone could misinterpret or misunderstand the painting and about the times when it was created. 

“I think contemporary children would look at that painting and say why are the white people here and the black people over there?” she said. 

“What we don’t know is what whether this was (Brent’s) idea for the subject matter or whether someone had an outline of what they wanted represented. Now, 50 years later we’re saying our perspective is broader.”  

After a lengthy wait, Father Johnson said he is thrilled to have the art finally come down.  

“It’s beautiful that it’s finally happening and a small victory for the kingdom of God,” he said. “From my perspective, we had no credibility to talk about racial healing in our diocese if the Catholic Life Center had a display of a priest blessing a rebel flag. How can you do all of this work out there and you come home and you have this in your home?  

“Getting rid of that symbol of heart and vision shows we are all serious about making disciples of all nations.”