Designing pope's linens labor of love for Westmoreland County monk
In a simple St. Vincent Archabbey workshop jammed with bolts of fabric and sewing machines, a world-renowned artist and Benedictine monk spent weeks hunched over a computer, designing what might be his most viewed work — the altar linens Pope Francis will use when celebrating Mass in Philadelphia this week.
The two sets of linens — one for a Mass on Saturday in the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul and another for a Mass on Sunday on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway — will forge an intimate connection between the artist who designed them and the pontiff who will use them, according to their maker, the Rev. Vincent de Paul Crosby, who serves at the archabbey near Latrobe.
“I touched these. The Holy Father will touch these,” said Crosby, whose clients range from the Vatican to small parishes throughout the world.
Crosby had two months to complete the project.
He designed the papal linens on a computer in his studio down the hill from the iconic basilica on the St. Vincent College campus. Once he received approval from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, he shipped his designs to CM Almay Co., which completed the stitching.
Crosby, who made the vestments worn by Pope John Paul II at the 2002 World Youth Mass in Toronto, said it would have taken him at least six months to sew the linens by hand.
He added color, using cotton floss thread, to the normally “white-on-white” linens because they'll be used in such a large setting. The parkway Mass is expected to draw more than 1.5 million people.
The use of linen on the altar dates back to the early church, said Kathy Sales of the campus ministry for liturgy at the University of Dayton.
“It's placed there as a matter of reverence for what we are about to celebrate,” she said.
The linens for the basilica Mass have what is known as a Marian theme, employing the traditional “Ava Maria” symbol surrounded by a border of 12 stars, symbolizing the Immaculate Conception.
For the parkway Mass linens, Crosby followed a Christo-centric theme, using the traditional symbol of the risen Christ — a Greek cross with letters in each quadrant that mean “Jesus Christ, Victor.”
The choice of those symbols is fitting for Francis, Sales said.
“He has a huge devotion to Mary, and he has called us to be Christlike,” she said.
Crosby, 71, a native of Buffalo, has been a member of the monastic community at St. Vincent Archabbey since 1967. He was ordained a priest in 1972.
He received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia. He studied art for a year in Rome, then earned a Master of Fine Arts from Catholic University in Washington.
Crosby has been director of the Archabbey Studios since 1991 and works each day in the studio that is half showroom and half tailor shop. Visitors see an array of finished vestments and scarves in a multitude of colors in one room, and his computer station, two sewing machines and a large work table for cutting fabric in another. Hanging on various racks are robes, pieces of fabric and other raw materials.
Soft-spoken and humble, Crosby shies from attention.
“It's about the linens, not me,” he said.
Crosby also works with stained glass, sculpture, church design and renovation.
“I knew that I was an artist,” he said. “I always tried to make things more beautiful than they were.”
And he is busy.
“I have a backlog of orders,” he noted.
He got started in doing vestments in 1975 for the community, but was asked a year later to make vestments for St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, outside Philadelphia in Montgomery County.
At the time, “classes were still large, and we needed vestments for the deacons. ... We didn't have good quality at that time,” said Monsignor John J. Miller, a seminary faculty member.
Crosby's work with the seminary has led to other projects with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, but he had no idea he would be chosen to produce artwork for the pope's visit.
When diocesan officials first spoke with him, they said they were not following the usual protocol and were not seeking bids from other artisans.
“It was quite a surprise,” Crosby said.
Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.