PROVIDENCE — On a recent clear, sunny late afternoon in downtown Providence, a small group of people gather in a gallery at the Sprout Coworking Center, a multipurpose building containing cubicles, offices, and showrooms. The light sound of jazz and R&B plays in the background as attendants walk throughout the room, talking to each other and looking at a series of acrylic, oil and watercolor paintings. Eventually, the number of attendees grows, and towards the end of the event there are over 40 people in attendance.
The paintings shown were the work of Father Raymond Tetrault. The artworks — which included acrylics, oil paintings, and watercolors — were discovered mostly after his death this past January. Subjects ranged from self-portraits to paintings of cityscapes and nature scenes to portraits of friends, family members, and fellow priests and artists. Yet, the main part of the display was his paintings of a more religious and political nature.
Religious paintings included depictions of biblical scenes and his own unique renditions of popular religious paintings, particularly those in the style of traditional Eastern icons. Those of a more political bent, which played a particularly prominent role in his art towards the end of his life, were inspired mainly by the events and debates surrounding injustice on matters of race and dignity. The subject of these paintings included famous Civil Rights leaders and victims of violence.
The art reflects a lifelong mission on the part of Father Tetrault. Father Tetrault — known simply as “Father Ray” among those who knew him — was born in 1935. Ordained a priest for the Diocese of Providence in 1960, at the age of 25, he spent the early part of his career as a religion teacher at the local seminary high school, and later as the Master of Novices for the Brothers of Our Lady of Providence. After briefly serving at Blessed Sacrament parish in Providence, he served as the pastor of St. Teresa of Avila parish from 1993 to 2008.
From the beginning, social activism was a major part of Father Ray’s ministry. The Brothers of Our Lady of Providence, with which Father Ray was involved during the early part of his career, were deeply involved in helping the poor as well as the growing immigrant population in many of Rhode Island’s urban centers. Yet, Father Ray was best known as one of the founders of Priests for Justice, a local grassroots activist group of priests from the Diocese of Providence.
The organization traces its roots to Father Ray’s work with the Hispanic community in Providence. From 1970 to 1990, Father Ray worked with the Office of Hispanic Ministry at St. Michael’s parish to help minister to the needs of the growing immigrant community.
He developed an intimate relationship with many in the parish, and eventually became concerned with the economic, political and social plight of those to whom he ministered and felt the need to take a stand. Father Ray was one of a group of priests from local urban parishes who would meet on a regular basis to discuss the economic and social struggles of their parishioners.
It was from these meetings that Father Ray was inspired to organize a network of priests who would meet on the second Friday of every month to discuss recent social and political issues and various methods of social activism needed to address these social grievances.
Eventually taking on the name “Priests for Justice,” the organization was a small and somewhat decentralized movement, lacking a singular leader or administrative structure. The group became well-known throughout the diocese for organizing protests in response to various social ills and either starting or taking part in various initiatives to help the marginalized, particularly the poor and recent immigrants.
The art display at the Sprout gallery showcased the intersection of Father Ray’s deep sense of spirituality and his love for social justice. Nonetheless, the inspiration for this event was the result of a series of surprise events taking place shortly after Father’s death this past January.
The showing was organized by Father Robert Beirne, a senior priest of the Diocese of Providence and a lifelong friend of Father Ray, together with Elena Calderon Patiño, the director of the Community Arts Program at the Rhode Island State Council of the Arts, and her husband, Agustín Patiño, a local painter and art teacher who frequently worked with Father Ray.
While many knew of Father Ray’s love of art, the exact extent of his work was unknown during his life. “I knew little, but he said that as a young man he used to paint,” Father Beirne noted. “But, during the next 40 years or so I never saw any manifestation of his art ability,” noting that the only time in which he saw Father Tetrault paint was during regular vacations they would take to Block Island.
“He was a quiet man, in many ways. He never was for show. He was just quiet about it,” said Father Eugene McKenna, a senior priest for the Diocese of Providence. Father McKenna studied with Father Ray at the Catholic University of Louvain, in Belgium, and both were members of the Priests for Justice.
Following his death, dozens of paintings were found at Father Ray’s residence at the St. John Vianney Home. All the paintings by Father Ray that could be found — 135 in total — were shown. There were many more that he gave away to friends, family members and others.
According to some who knew him, his interest in these issues was the result not only of an interest in politics, but of a strong sense of spirituality. Father Beirne noted that his political pieces in specific were born out of “an intense life of prayer,” which allowed Father Ray to “see the beauty of God, not just in nature…but also the beauty of God in people.”
“I think that it was a moment in which he realized something of the lack of dignity and respect and recognition of beauty of blacks, and the supreme injustice of being murdered because of their color,” Father Beirne continued, stating that, for Father Ray, the existential and moral implications of recent political events struck him in such a powerful manner that he viewed his art as a “vocation.”
Shari Weinberger, the director of the gallery at Sprout Coworking, echoed similar sentiments.
“I think what Father Raymond is trying to tell us here is that they should not be forgotten, and that we should look at their portraits and remember that we are responsible for creating a just and equal world for everyone.”
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