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June 21, 2009

Kolbe House creates sanctuary with art

By Clemente Nicado


For Victor Lopez, painting became a kind of spiritual therapy while confined in prison for more than two decades.

He was put in a Cook County juvenile detention center when he was only 16 years old and while inside he armed himself with an artist’s brush to wrestle with the tempest in his soul.

While serving his lengthy prison sentence, painting transformed Lopez from a young man involved in gangs, to a man passionate for this form of artistic expression.

Painting had such a dramatic impact on his life that upon leaving the prison 23 years later, he continued painting. One of his creations was of Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest who was assassinated by the Nazis in a concentration camp during World War II.

Today, a man of 43 years, he is free and transformed. Lopez lives with the satisfaction of sharing the artistic talents he refined while incarcerated, in the creation of the Kolbe House Sanctuary Gallery, which opened its doors on June 10 at Assumption Parish, 2434 S. California Ave.

Dream come true

Under the guidance of Father Arturo Perez, director of Kolbe House, Lopez is helping build this sanctuary that was a dream of Father Larry Craig, the former director of Kolbe House who died three years ago.

This gallery will showcase works of art created by current and former prisoners, such as one titled “Captive Child,” an 18th-century painting depicting a child holding handcuffs. This piece was donated to Craig shortly before his death.

“It will be a spiritual center for the Kolbe volunteers, for families of prisoners, former prisoners, persons who work in this ministry and for those that are a part of our community and wish to help affected families,” said Perez.

This is the first phase of the sanctuary, which will be completed in three or four years, with the ultimate goal of transforming it into a traveling exhibit that will visit parishes throughout the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Gospel mandate

Kolbe House not only supports the spiritual and emotional needs of inmates or former prisoners, but also their families impacted by the incarceration of their loved ones.

Cardinal Joseph Bernardin founded Kolbe House in 1983 in response to a request from a Catholic chaplain who ministered at Cook County correctional facilities.

It was named Kolbe in honor of the Polish priest Maximilian Kolbe, and “House,” to emphasize the fraternity and hospitality that this ministry would be known for.

About 35 volunteers work each year in a ministry that continues to grow because of the steady increase in the number of prisoners in the jail at 26th and California, where an average of 9,000 prisoners a year are housed.

By painting he saw God

Lopez is a proud champion of this sanctuary. Having left jail as a “new man,” he became a volunteer to represent Kolbe House in the same jail where he was detained for many years.

And there he is, on the outside of the gates, to encourage or give advice to the inmates if that’s what they need at the moment.

“I tell them that they also can learn to paint. I was given that same encouragement by a Death Row inmate and it changed my life,” he said.

“Painting for me is therapeutic. I paint here sometimes well after midnight. Before I started painting I had a lot of pent up anger, with faith in nothing. Painting brought me inner peace. I was able to see God,” he said.

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