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St. Anthony’s Catholic church recently started a course that teaches iconog­raphy. Courtesy| Sarah Conley

When Sarah Conley, who teaches weekly iconog­raphy work­shops at Saint Anthony Catholic Church, was asked to join a group of women from the parish to make icons, she said she jumped at the oppor­tunity because “I wanted to get to know people in the church.”

That was four years ago, and she had only been living in Hillsdale for a year. What she first saw as a way to get to know the com­munity has become a serious pursuit for Conley.

“I just became enthralled,” she said.

Since learning the basics from Laura Smith, another member at Saint Anthony’s, she said she has taken four work­shops from experts in iconog­raphy or color theory, including Mother Olympia of Holy Dor­mition Monastery, an Orthodox com­munity in Rives Junction, Michigan.

Now, for the last year, Conley has shared her passion with the parish and other locals inter­ested in learning the process of iconog­raphy. Work­shops for adults are every Monday from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Youth classes, open for children aged 7 and older, will begin March 1. There are limited places in the class, as Conley says she tries to keep the youth class at 10 par­tic­i­pants.

The children’s class will often take 8 to 10 weeks to com­plete the project. Because the process is med­i­tative and might be tedious for some, Conley said,

“I’m com­pletely blown away by how receptive youth are to it. Some have said it’s the high­light of their week.”

Kelly Cole, also a parish­ioner at St. Anthony’s, said in an email that her children have greatly enjoyed taking classes for almost two years, with her 7-year-old son just starting in the fall.

“They have all ben­e­fited from it as a unique form of prayer and as a way of med­i­tating on a par­ticular name/image of Jesus or the Blessed Mother or a par­ticular saint,” she said. “They also have been pleased to be able to give their icons as gifts to family and friends.”

Called “writing an icon,” the name of the process reflects that cre­ating a reli­gious icon is much more than just painting a picture. Every detail has sym­bolic meaning, and the painter layers mul­tiple thin pig­ments, with every stroke a form of prayer.

“They are to be taken seri­ously,” Conley said. “I’m very open to anyone who is attracted to the idea if it’s some­thing they’re inter­ested in.”

Once a year, Saint Anthony’s also hosts a week-long iconog­raphy retreat, orga­nized by Heather Tritchka, which will take place this summer. Smith and Conley said that, since the retreat teaches the tra­di­tional method with egg tempera and other tra­di­tional tools, it’s more intense. Everyone works on the same icon. Conley uses acrylics during the weekly classes, allowing her to teach color theory as well. Members of the adult class pick an icon of their own choosing. She said she appre­ciated the freedom to mix colors with even subtle dif­fer­ences, which egg tempera does not allow for.

Though Conley played down her role as instructor during the adult class, saying “we’re basi­cally an encour­agement to each other,” Smith said that she was a won­derful teacher.

Conley said she would be willing to speak with anyone inter­ested in learning more about iconog­raphy, or are inter­ested in joining. Her contact infor­mation can be found on the Saint Anthony website.

“There’s a deep com­munal aspect of doing this together,” Smith said. “You’re copying original images a lot of the time. It’s not about you — It’s a means of prayer.”

  • Jen­nifer Melfi

    is Hillsdale a catholic school now as well?