On a summer morning of 1992, a white United Postal Service truck arrived at the church of St. Theresa of Avila in West Roxbury, Boston, where Father Ray Helmick, a Boston College professor and a Jesuit, was waiting in anticipation.
He rushed to the deliveryman to help him carry the heavy boxes to the
cellar, where Helmick had made his studio.
“What’s in the boxes?” said
the deliveryman, curious as to what could ever make a grown man so
Helmick opened one of them, revealing the multitude of shiny glass
mosaic tiles that lay within.
The deliveryman blew a long whistle and
said: “Well…Some assembly needed.”
It had been difficult to find a company that sold mosaic tiles
oversees. Not all mosaic tiles are the same. The kind Helmick wanted
were the Venetian tiles, made entirely of colored molten glass.
He had found a specialty place in Venice, Mosaici di Angelo Vezzoni,
which could ship them over to the United States. Now that they had
finally arrived, he could get to work completing his mosaic project.
The project had begun when St. Theresa’s needed restorations in order
to allow handicap access. The ramp was placed in a room at the side
entrance and it had big windows on two of its walls.
that the remaining two walls would be a great place to have artwork and
offered to make it himself.
Helmick began his project with enthusiasm even though he knew very
little about how a mosaic actually works. He had done one mosaic before,
a circular figure representing St. Theresa of Avila that hung from a
wood-carved, gold-leafed crown.
It was quite small, about the diameter of a soccer ball, and nothing
compared to the 15’ by 15’ wall that the Jesuit was about to tackle. He
decided to divide the work into 70 panels, made of carton boards and
then cemented onto the wall by the architects in charge of the
He began drawing the project onto paper in order to use it as an
outline for the actual mosaic, but drawing figures did not come as
naturally to him as architectural design. “Spatial things come very
clearly to me,” Helmick would later say, while looking at his rendering
of perspective approvingly.
He frowned with disappointment at what he considered his drawing
mistakes and inaccuracies.
The larger-than-life image of Jesus was a
It floats next to a “living scroll,” a twirling vine inhabited by all
sorts of birds and small mammals, inspired by the churches of Saint
Mary Major and Saint Clements in Rome.
This was easier said than done,
and Helmick soon began running out of animals, ornithology not being
among his many talents.
The demilitarized zone in North Korea might not be the first place
that comes to mind for artistic inspiration. Helmick traveled there with
a select group of his students from his International Conflict
Resolution class in 1998.
While riding on the back of a bus, he looked out of the window at the
160-mile long band that divides the Korean peninsula. The zone was, and
still is, heavily mined and there was hardly any living creature in
Out of nowhere appeared a Korean Magpie, a native bird of the
land, with long blue wings and white stripes on the side.
For Helmick it had always been essential to have something from his
travels in his artwork. And this bird was the perfect addition.
He had devoted his life to traveling and aiding diplomatic relations.
In the late 1960’s he was teaching in Jamaica, when the Rastafarians
were still just a group of troublemakers and social pariahs. When one of
the Rastafarian men called out to him “white man must go, blood must
flow(!),” Helmick decided to sit down and have a chat.
This experience would later guide him when thousands of Rastafarians were exiled from Kingston in 1968.
He used the same technique in Ireland in 1972, when the members of
the Independent Irish Army began to raise turmoil and later resort to
violent means to sustain their beliefs for the independence of Northern
Ireland. From there it was Mozambique, Angola, Israel and Palestine,
Yugoslavia, East Timor and India following the trail of discord and
In time, Helmick had gathered inspiration form all over the world and after nine years he had completed his project.
The mosaic was in the Byzantine style, with large weightless figures
surrounded by a gold background.
Underneath the figure of Jesus there
are pictures of the miracles done for the sick and wounded, visible to
those using the ramp.
The windows in the room, allow for the light to hit the glass tiles,
creating a colorful vibration not unlike ripples in a pool.
birds depicted in the mosaic are peacocks, cardinals, woodpeckers,
doves, storks, swallows, owls, pelicans and countless other species that
Helmick had seen during his voyages, including, of course, the Korean
Helmick had always loved making things from scratch.
When he was a
young Jesuit studying in New York in the 1950’s, he decided to make a
harpsichord, an instrument resembling a piano.
His passion and understanding of the piano had driven him to try and
achieve such a complex endeavor. He took woodworking classes in a
professional shop and completed the instrument.
The harpsichord rested in his apartment next to the church, and
Helmick would caress its smooth painted surface fondly when he passed by
it. His hands were those of an artisan, big and rough, but firm like a
surgeons’ hands when at work.
He lost the tip of of his right thumb while working on the woodwork
for the tabernacle, the place where the bread and wine for communion are
Being “no stranger to woodwork,” as Helmick said, he decided to
make the 12 feet tall wooden tabernacle himself as part of the
restorations for the church.
While passing the pieces of wood through a
circular saw blade, the tip of his thumb was cut clean off.
Helmick was terrified of not being able to pursue his passions
anymore, and went from one doctor to another desperately looking for
someone who could offer him some optimism.
“I play the piano seriously!”
Helmick told the last doctor he visited in Wellesley.
The doctor sowed
the finger back on and gave him physiotherapy exercises.
Once Helmick could play the three Chopin preludes, that make the
biggest demands on the thumb, he returned to his work on the mosaic.
After the wall piece was completed Helmick felt that he could do
more. Soon he was planning something new, his mind imagining more
designs and improvements on the church’s aesthetic. At the age of 82,
having postponed the project due to a knee injury, he started working on
a baptismal font that is the fixture used for baptisms.
His study had once again been stocked with all the material that is
essential to make it into a studio again. A long corridor in the
basement of the church property leads to a large room. When Helmick was
working, you would be led there by the sound of classical music by
composers Ludvig Van Beethoven or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
The room has little light and the only windows are small and placed
up high. The walls are plain, except for a stripe around the room with a
crayon motif, hinting that the place was used for community activities
before becoming an art studio.
The entire space is cluttered with objects. A long gray table runs
down its entire length, piled with books and glues and cement. There are
old National Geographic magazines and pictures from the New York Times and Boston Globe
newspapers, stacked high on top of each other. Pictures of pigs and all
kinds of birds and trees, from Sycamores to Lebanon cedars, are
casually scattered on the surface.
Everywhere you looked you would get a glimpse of Helmick’s creative
process and inspirations. The South wall is covered with shelves of CD’s
and cassettes. Most of the music is classical, but some have foreign
names, purchased during some of his travels.
Before getting to work, Helmick would put on latex gloves, to avoid
getting his fingers glued to the mosaic. Then he turned to the immense
variety of colored mosaic tiles, placed in red boxes, color coded and
labeled by their serial number. The tiles are smooth and shiny, about
half an inch tall and wide.
The gold tiles that Helmick used for the background are different. An
actual gold leaf is placed within two transparent glass squares. The
gold mosaic that Helmick used is gold number 10 that has a particular
Once he chose the colored tile, Helmick proceeded to cut it into the
shape he needed.
Sometimes this is not necessary but when needed the
tile is placed on a sharp blade resting on a ceramic plate and smashed
using a hammer.
Breaking the tiles can be very hard and sometimes Helmick would lose
his patience and just smash it with the hammer on the table, hoping it
would provide him with the shape he was looking for. “It creates an
awful lot of dust.
There is a lot of cleaning up to do,” Helmick complained, brushing
off the debris from the work place. But cutting the tiles is essential,
especially in order to insert words, mostly scriptures and the psalms,
into the mosaic.
Having traced the drawings onto the cardboard, Helmick proceeded to
glue the tiles with cement onto the sheets. It’s a painstakingly long
endeavor that requires an impressive amount of patience, which the
Jesuit priest performed with the utmost reverence and calm.
for different tones and variations in color, to approach the highest
level of perfection.
The room, which usually smells musty and rubbery, is filled with the
chemical smell of cement at this point of the process. A sliver of
sunlight shines through the windows onto Helmick’s temples and knuckles.
Passing a hand on the finished image, the surface is cold and bumpy.
The mosaic glints brightly as the Sonata in G Major rings clear from the
speakers, while the Jesuit professor bends over his work, placing one
tile at the time.
It’s a long and ambitious work making a mosaic, and some people are
surprised to know that Helmick offered all of his work for free to the
church. The mosaic tiles cost $35 an ounce, amounting to a total of
about $6,000 paid for by donors to the community.
But the labor put in by the Jesuit artisan was completely free. For
him making artwork was a way of improving the church and giving
something back to his community.
Helmick spent a varying amount of time in front of his work from half
an hour to half a day.
When he wasn’t working on one of his projects he
was thinking about his classes at Boston College.
He dreamed of making a new mural next to the older one in the side
entrance. It was meant to represent St. Theresa of Avila, the Churches’
saint, in order to remind people entering who she was and what she did
in her lifetime.
Helmick looked at the blank wall the same way a composer might look
at a music score, hearing the melody emerge from the dotted pages. His
imagination allowed him to see possibilities, and for anyone listening
to him to see them too.
“He is always imagining things, coming up with things,” said
Helmick’s brother, Monsignor William Helmick, “you never now what he is
going to come up with next.”
Father Ray Helmick died in April 2016 at the age of 84. His
memory lives on in his works at St. Theresa of Avila in West Roxbury
Church. The wall mosaic of St. Theresa was unfinished when he died.