How Charlotte artist captured Mother Teresa for official portrait in sainthood ceremony

A million Mother Teresas

Watch as more than one million holy cards bearing the image of Mother Teresa are printed at the Knights of Columbus' printing presses in New Haven,Conn. The original portrait was painted by Charlotte artist Chas Fagan.
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Watch as more than one million holy cards bearing the image of Mother Teresa are printed at the Knights of Columbus' printing presses in New Haven,Conn. The original portrait was painted by Charlotte artist Chas Fagan.

Charlotte artist Chas Fagan had only four months to paint what will be the official portrait of Mother Teresa for her sainthood ceremony Sunday in Rome.

When the Roman Catholic Church officially canonizes Mother Teresa, Pope Francis and an estimated crowd of 1 million pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square will gaze on Fagan’s rendering.

Working in his studio near Freedom Park, Fagan found the smiling image of the famous nun he was looking for when a photographer who had done a picture book on Mother Teresa called unexpectedly and volunteered his archive.

To get Mother Teresa’s praying hands right, Fagan’s wife Kate posed for the initial shape and lighting.

And to understand the mechanics of the sari draped around Mother Teresa’s shoulder, Fagan visited the nuns in her religious order who live and work out of a house on Central Avenue in Charlotte.

On Thursday, Fagan was in Washington for the unveiling of his finished portrait – “Surely the finest depiction of Mother Teresa I have ever seen,” Knights of Columbus CEO Carl Anderson wrote in a note to Fagan.

Sunday, a vinyl reproduction of Fagan’s portrait will be the central image in a very large tapestry hanging from the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica, above the square where the pope will celebrate Mass.

Fagan is no rookie at painting and sculpting historical figures for renowned venues. His portraits and statues of other historical figures – including Ronald Reagan, Neil Armstrong, Rosa Parks, Barbara Bush and Mecklenburg County’s own Captain Jack astride his galloping horse – adorn the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, the White House and the National Cathedral.

But for Fagan, who attends St. Peter Catholic Church in uptown Charlotte, the challenge of capturing on canvas this Albanian-born 5-foot-tall sister who devoted her life to serving the poor in India involved as much inspiration as perspiration.

And the fact that his likeness of her will be the official portrait of Mother Teresa’s canonization ceremony “is surreal. It really hasn’t sunk in yet,” said Fagan, who will be in Rome for the Sunday ceremony. “ I’m just thrilled to have it there, and thrilled to celebrate Mother Teresa.”

Based in Calcutta, she died in 1997 at age 87.

Fagan’s 22-inch by 28-inch portrait was commissioned by the Knights of Columbus – the largest Catholic fraternal organization in the world. The Vatican and those promoting the cause of Mother Teresa’s sainthood liked Fagan’s painting so much, said Knights of Columbus spokesman Joe Cullen, that they decided it should be the official canonization portrait. The group will also print over 1 million prayer cards bearing Fagan’s work.

Fagan, 50, was on a tight deadline to finish the Mother Teresa portrait, which he began in March. But by late June, as he neared the end of his work, his picture of Mother Teresa – her hands joined in prayer, holding a rosary – came to life for him.

“She was a constant reminder that there’s more altruism to do in the world,” he said. “And that if you start helping somebody, suddenly your own problems will disappear.”

Though the humble nun and the sisters who joined her religious order, the Missionaries of Charity, cared daily for the desperate and the dying, Fagan wanted to paint a smiling Mother Teresa. As he worked away in his studio in Myers Park, he was driven by something she once said: “Joy is strength.”

‘A great subject’

Fagan, who moved to Charlotte from Philadelphia 15 years ago to be near his wife’s father, spent much of his youth in Brussels, Belgium, where his own father was a diplomat.

At Yale University, Fagan drew political cartoons for the school paper. After graduating, he moved to Washington, where he did cartoons that appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Newsweek and National Review.

He also began doing still-lifes, landscapes and portraits. It was his portrait of former President Reagan on the cover of The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine, that got him an invitation in the 1990s from former Reagan staffers to do another portrait of the former president for the Union League Club in New York.

Since then, Fagan has been in demand.

A stellar sampling of his work: A life-size portrait of Barbara Bush for the White House; a bronze sculpture of Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon, for Purdue University; and the sculpted faces of Mother Teresa and civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks for the National Cathedral.

It was his larger-than-life sculpture of Pope – now St. – John Paul II that led to Fagan’s association with the Knights of Columbus, whose 1.9 million members perform works of charity in their communities.

The group wanted to commission a portrait of Mother Teresa as a gift to her Missionaries of Charity. They turned to Fagan.

“I always love to find a good subject. Mother Teresa is a great subject,” said Fagan. “The world knows her for her altruism. And her face is unique and expressive.”

‘A life of its own’

Fagan scoured the Internet for photographs of Mother Teresa, but was not finding what he wanted.

Then one day – “out of the blue,” Fagan said – he got a phone call from California photographer Michael Collopy, who had done a picture book on Mother Teresa.

He had heard of Fagan’s portrait project and wanted to volunteer his archive.

“He was kind of my partner,” Fagan said. “I was able to piece together a likeness I really like.”

Fagan had to draw not only the veil worn by Mother Teresa but also her sari.

The nuns on Central Avenue usually shy away from being photographed – their vows include a promise of humility. But one of the sisters agreed to pose for pictures – “more of her (garment) than of her,” Fagan said.

Fagan’s finished portrait of Mother Teresa will become the legal property of the Missionaries of Charity, said Knights of Columbus spokesman Cullen.

“Ultimately,” he said, “it will probably end up in one of the Missionaries’ houses in Rome.”

That suits Fagan, whose artwork from Charlotte is now on display all over.

“You do a painting and send it off,” he said. “Then it takes on a life of its own.”

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