PROVIDENCE — The retired priests at the St. John Vianney Residence had quite a surprise when they entered their dining room for their Christmas Eve supper. Each found his first Christmas gift on the wall — his portrait. Surely, a once in a lifetime gift! There they were, the 10 portraits arranged in a diamond shape. And in the middle was the portrait of the resident artist, Father Ray Tetrault.
There had been suspicions during the months of November and December that “something was afoot.” At various meal times, Father Ray reached for his phone, poked here and there for a bit to get the camera functioning, and took a couple of shots of each of his brother priests. From those photos, Father Ray told his brother priests that first he penciled in the face, beginning with the eyes. Then he began the painting stage. On Christmas Eve, the men were overjoyed to see all of them in 11- by 14- inch full-color acrylic splendor. Father Ray was very kind with their various wrinkles and warts. The ten all look pretty handsome, considering.
These weren’t Father Ray’s first portraits. Since his retirement, he has been returning to painting regularly. For years, there just wasn’t enough time. There had been so, so many people to take care of. Ministering to the Latino Community for the past 50 years, he knew thousands of people, and they know and respect and love him. He has been “their priest” for all these years, and they still call upon him. Even in his mid-80s he’s been kept busy.
Some of his earlier works were “still lifes” and pictures of his house (inside and out) on Appleton Street. There are park scenes as well, but the paintings done from his window looking out over Olneyville are striking! After doing a sampling of self-portraits, he began painting some portraits of other people. He took pictures of friends and acquaintances and working from them developed the painted images. For instance, Father Ray met a sacristan at a funeral in an East Providence church. The elderly gentleman was very pleased to receive his portrait some months later. Two ladies who help at the St. John Vianney Residence have had their portraits hanging in their living rooms for some months now.
Early on in the pandemic, he moved to the St. John Vianney Residence on Mount Pleasant Avenue in Providence. After a lifetime of inner-city living he found the new experience of peace and quiet on the fringes of the city matched the calm he is used to living. A bonus was the time to devote himself every day for some good and uninterrupted time of painting.
Father Ray doesn’t have all the time he’d like for his prayer, his reading, daily walk. But he dedicates part of every day to his painting. Besides the frequent phone calls and the responses to them he’s called to make, he has a regular Facebook meeting with a group of friends. At each meeting they share “their moment closest to Christ” over the past days. On Sunday, Wednesday and Friday evenings at seven o’clock he drops everything to get on line and guide a half-hour of contemplative prayer. There are now people participating from around the country.
Since the St. John Vianney Residence has a very ample yard on Mount Pleasant Avenue, as well as a wooded area just a few yards beyond the house, Father Ray is able to continue his love of nature. To get a better look at the variety of birds he’s put a post and birdfeeder up against his window. He says that some of the birds frequenting it have become quite friendly with him! You can bet that their “portraits” will be appearing soon.
Among the religious themes that he has worked on are bigger paintings of the Transfiguration, one of his favorite Gospel moments. For Christmas, he also finished his own version of “The Peaceable Kingdom,” showing the various animals and the Child, before God’s Holy Mountain. That has been hung in the dining room as well.
Within a few days, the priests of the house will be taking down their pictures and hanging them in their rooms. They hope, though, that Father Ray will leave the still life of fruit and the scene of Roger Williams Park on the dining room walls, so that they can enjoy them at each meal. As they gaze at their portraits, they’ll be seeing the artistic vision that their life-long friend in the ministry has of them. That must be Father Ray’s hope, too, that all the subjects of his paintings might develop the same “eye for the good, the true and the beautiful” he has and that he has tried so beautifully to share.
Finally, though, the Fathers found that it is true, Santa is immune to the virus. Nor is he in quarantine. In fact, during the night he passed door to door at the St. John Vianney Residence and left a bright red stocking, stuffed with goodies at each door! Yes, eyes were popping as the old men greeted Christmas Day.