Prison artist tries to craft a new life
FOR NEARLY three months, Peter Rentz has been bringing piece of white ash to life as St. Peregrine, the patron saint of cancer sufferers.
"The statue has given me a lot of hope," said Rentz, 35, a prisoner at Collins Correctional Facility. On June 10, Bishop Edward D. Head will come to the prison to bless the statue. Then it will be placed in the chapel at Lewiston's Mount St. Mary's Hospital as a memorial to the Rev. Robert Dmitri, 45, who died of bone cancer last year.
When he found that he had cancer, Father Dmitri "accepted it right from the beginning," said Lynne Scalia, an assistant professor of business at Buffalo State College.
"Right until the end, he had God on his side to help pull him through. He touched so many lives. He adopted families rather than families adopting him."
After Father Dmitri's death in August, several friends wanted to honor this person they describe as a "good, solid priest" and a friend to many. They decided that a statue to St. Peregrine, a 13th century priest who is said to have been miraculously cured of leg cancer, would be fitting. But ordering a statue from Italy where much of this work is done, would have cost between $9,000 and $15,000, which was beyond their budget.
That's when the Rev. James G. Judge, a chaplain at Collins and a friend of Father Dmitri's, thought of asking Rentz if he could tackle the project. He knew that Rentz was a talented artist. His oil paintings won Best of Show last year at the Keuka Lake Art Festival and twice at an Albany exhibit of convicts' art. He has also had a one-man show at Keuka College, where he got a degree in business administration while in prison.
But Rentz had never carved a piece of this magnitude. "It's not like a painting that you can cover over if you make a mistake," said Rentz. Collins Superintendent Victor Herbert said it was "a little unusual" to give approval to the project, "but Peter is a talented artist so we said okay."
Corrections officers Charles Magee and Donald Williams went to woods in
the Southern Tier to find a suitable piece of ash, a material often used for
making baseball bats. Carving tools were purchased.
Payne calls the statue "quite an undertaking," especially for someone who hasn't done a work of this size before. "If I compare him to other students at the university, he's done a much better job than most beginning carvers," he said.
The project fell into Rentz's hands when he most needed it. Last month his appeal for parole was denied. He has been imprisoned for almost 17 years for killing his mother.
"There was a 50-50 chance they'd let me go, but they decided to keep me here," said Rentz, who transferred from the maximum-security facility at Elmira to Collins about two years ago.
Working on the statue has given him renewed purpose. And he hopes it will inspire people who are suffering from cancer, he said. His father died of cancer in 1975, said Rentz.
"He seemed to lose hope," he said. "It hurt me when I visited him, because he went from a robust person to a frail person."
"St. Peregrine went through a lot of suffering. The idea I'm trying to convey is that people can retain hope," Rentz speaks from experience about trying to hold onto hope.
As a teenager in Ithaca, he was addicted to alcohol and drugs. "From 15 to 18 the only thing I wanted to do was to party. The object was to be intoxicated and liberated," said Rentz, whose parents were both artists.
"I'm an alcoholic, and the crime was committed while I was under the influence. You could say alcohol did it, but alcohol doesn't create the behavior. I valued drugs more than I valued my mother. I didn't know how to deal with problems."
Since he has been imprisoned, Rentz said he has tried to use the time constructively. "I believe that when a person comes into the system, he has a chance to recognize what he did," said Rentz, who belongs to Alcoholics Anonymous and to Christian fellowship groups. "The tendency is for most people not to admit their guilt, not to be introspective. A lot of guys blame society.
"When I was arrested, I was forced to look at myself I don't want this prison experience to be a waste. I want it to help me overcome what brought me here. I want to get out and I want to stay out."
"My conscience has gotten a little muscle. I'm trying to practice for when I'm free. I'm doing the best I can. If I can't practice today, I won't be able to when I walk the streets."
If he gets out, Rentz would like to have an art studio, but he knows it's more realistic to think that he'll start by working for someone else, painting signs or framing pictures.
He could go before a parole board again in two years, Rentz said. "But it's not a guarantee. They could keep me here and never let me go," he said. "Society doesn't want to let people like me go, and I don't blame society."
With a chance to develop his artistic talent and to make friends both inside and outside of prison, Rentz finds that his life has meaning.
I like my life much better now, but it's much harder," he said. With my crime, I have to live with it moment by moment. I try to live each day as if I'm outside. I don't want to be a cold person. It's a cold heart that can take a life. What drives me now is that I'd like to be the kind of son my parents wanted."
A statue and one man's dream
The popular Catholic priest had only one last wish. He asked his friends to encourage more devotions to St. Peregrine, the "Cancer Saint."
Virtually an unknown among saints, Peregrine was a 13th century priest who suffered from a grotesque cancer that almost cost him his leg. But, after a night of prayer before the image of the crucifixion, he dreamed the hand of Christ reached out from the cross to touch him. When he awoke, he was completely healed.
When "Father Bob," as many called him, found out he had bone cancer, "he accepted the disease and immediately put it in God's hands," says Lynne Scalia, one of the priest's several close friends.
Because St. Peregrine was such an inspiration to the dying priest, Ms. Scalia and a "committee" of friends decided to create a lasting epitaph for the former chaplain at Mount St. Mary's Hospital. They set out to have a statue of St. Peregrine sculpted for the hospital chapel.
But the "Friends of St. Peregrine" ran into a problem immediately. They discovered a carved wood statue would probably cost between $9,000 and $15,000, if commissioned from Italy where this type of work is often done.
That's when the Rev. James Judge, senior chaplain at Collins Correctional Facility and Dmitri's friend since his seminary days had an idea. An inmate, Peter Rentz, happened to be an accomplished artist who had won awards for his oil paintings, even when confined to prison.
Rentz, however, had never sculpted anything this size. But, with the technical help of Kenneth Payne of Buffalo State College's fine arts department, the artist eagerly began his task several months ago. The 41-inch statue of mahogany-stained white ash is now on display in the hospital lobby. After its dedication and healing Mass Aug. 22 at St. Mary's of the Cataract Church on Fourth Street, it will be permanently located in the chapel.
She and the late priest's other friends were determined to make Father Dmitri's wish come true.
"Father Bob was adopted by a lot of families and he adopted them. I'd
known him since I was 13, for 20 years. It was a real nice friendship, "
Ms. Scalia says.
Dr. Robert Bull, his physician and friend for five years, diagnosed his illness. "It was a privilege to not only be his doctor, but his friend as well, " says Dr. Bull, a pall bearer for his funeral.
Another friend was Janet Ligamarri, a nurse at Mount St. Mary's. "He was a dedicated and loyal priest and friend to all. He taught us all a lot from the way he reacted to his illness. He is still with me every day," she says.
Ms. Scalia, who chaired the statue committee, says "Father Bob was very important to me, mentally and spiritually."
Because he meant so much, Dmitri's friends made his last wish a reality.
During times of personal struggle or suffering, we often turn to those we admire for encouragement and hope. The late Father Robert Dmitri, the former chaplain at Mount St. Mary's Hospital, Lewiston, found solace in a saint, St. Peregrine, the patron saint of all those who suffer from cancer.
St. Peregrine Laziosi was born in Forli, Italy, in 1260 to affluent parents. As a young man, he led a rebellious and dissolute life. On one occasion, he punched St. Philip Benizi in the face. This good and gentle saint simply turned the other cheek. St. Peregrine was so deeply moved that he changed his terrible ways. After much prayer, study, and reflection, he was ordained a priest and became an eloquent speaker, persuasive in reconciling sinners.
St. Peregrine suffered from leg cancer and was miraculously healed on night as he slept. He became, as a result, the patron of all who suffer from cancer. St. Peregrine died at 85 in 1345. He was canonized in 1726.
Father Dmitri's last wish
St. Peregrine was a beloved inspiration to Father Dmitri, who died in August 1991 after a struggle with cancer. One of Father Dmitri's last wishes before dying was that the hopeful message of St. Peregrine be carried to those in need. Father Dmitri was quoted as saying, "Please spread the devotion of St. Peregrine to give others hope."
Through these words and the love of his many friends, Father Dmitri's wishes were transformed into a lasting epitaph - a wood carving of the saint who offered hope.
"When he was first diagnosed with cancer, Father Dmitri accepted the disease and immediately put it in God's hands," said Lynne Scalia, chairperson of the Friends of St. Peregrine.
"He was a solid priest who was a great friend to a diverse group of people. Father Dmitri was a wonderful example, not to just those afflicted with the same disease, but to all of his friends," commented Ms. Scalia.
In an effort to acknowledge and remember the love of Father Dimmer, a network of associates and close friends took on the task of obtaining a statue of St. Peregrine. However, a statue from Italy would have cost between $9,000 and $15,000.
Although they could not afford a statue from Italy, the St. Peregrine Mission was not abandoned. The search continued at a local level. Eventually, the call for an artist to perform such a dutiful task reached the confines of the Collins Correctional Facility and the office of senior chaplain, Father James G. Judge.
Father Judge and Father Dimmer had been close friends dating back to their days spent together at the Diocesan Preparatory Seminary, Buffalo.
Although admittedly an unusual request, Father Judge approached Collins' inmate Peter Rentz, an accomplished artist, and requested his services. Mr. Rentz, although never having undertaken a sculpture of this magnitude, agreed to give it a try. Collins' superintendent, Victor Herbert, citing Mr. Rentz's artistic talent, gave him the approval to proceed with the project.
Statue of St. Peregrine
Over the next three months, Mr. Rentz labored fervently under the technical direction of Kenneth Payne (professor of the Fine Arts Department at Buffalo State College) who volunteered to assist. Day after day, Father Dmitri's hopes were transformed into a life-like resemblance of St. Peregrine. Finally on June 10 in Gowanda, at the Collins Correctional Facility, Mr. Rentz's labor of love was completed and, unveiled to a group of astonished onlookers at a blessing ceremony. Bishop Edward D. Head blessed the statue. Present in the audience were many from Mount St. Mary's Hospital who were responsible for carrying out the dream of their beloved chaplain.
"This is the realization of Father Dmitri's last wishes; he wanted no memorial for himself but the saint he cherished. One year later we see his wishes come to fruition," said Robert Bull, MD, one of the many people who made the statue a reality.
Janet Ligammari, a registered nurse at Mount St. Mary's, thinking about Father Dmitri said, "He brought us all together, old friends and new friends, and the togetherness continues on today."
The St. Peregrine mission is now close to completion. After the statue was blessed it was moved to the lobby of Mount St. Mary's Hospital to be viewed by the community. After the Healing Mass, it will find its final place in the hospital's chapel.
The Friends of St. Peregrine recently made a donation to the Benedict House and the Providence Community of Buffalo. The Benedict House assists homeless people who are living with AIDS and HIV. The Providence Community of Buffalo provides homes for adults with developmental disabilities. Both organizations exist primarily through private contributions.
Sisters of Mercy receive donation for mission work
The Friends of St. Peregrine have made a financial donation to the Sister of Mercy and the Providence Community. The sister will use their gift to purchase surgical instruments for their medical efforts in the Guyana Mission in the Philippines. The Providence Community of Buffalo will use their funds to support their group homes for developmentally disabled adults. The Friends of St. Peregrine, under the leadership of Father James Judge, offer healing masses throughout the Western New York are seeking spiritual healing for those afflicted with cancer and other life-threating illnesses.
Artist pays tribute to man many consider a
Faith is something that is sometimes difficult to see or hear, something hidden and hard to communicate. But for the Rev. Robert T. Dimmer, it was a gift he gave every day to everyone he met. "You almost can't put into words what happened here," Ann Volkman said of the relationship she and others had with the former in residence chaplain at Mount St. Mary's Hospital in the Town of Lewiston.
Father Dmitri died in August 1991 of bone cancer at the age of 45. His legacy of faith and kindness lives on, however, in artworks created in his memory.
An 11 by 14-inch oil portrait of Father Dmitri which was painted by Ann Volkman was dedicated and hung in the entryway to Mount St. Mary's seventh floor chapel earlier this month. The nursing staff at the hospital commissioned the 'retired nurse to paint the portrait a year ago as a tribute to the man who cared for so many, said Marcia Traverse, the hospital's director of strategic planning and development.
"So many nurses were with caring for Father when he became," Volkman explained. A nurse at Mount St. Mary's for 40 years, she was there to witness Father Dmitri's bout with cancer. For a time, he was a resident on the second floor, where Volkman worked in the maternity ward. "That's why we wanted (the portrait) - because he was such a part of our family.
"This is just a little thank you for all he's done for us," said Janet Ligammari, a Mount St. Mary's nurse and friend of Father Dmitri's.
Volkman has painted hundreds of portraits for friends and acquaintances during the last 45 years. But, placing her dear friend on canvas was different. "When you paint someone, you paint his soul," Volkman explained. "I just hoped that I could get his expression. "
Working initially from a wallet size photograph, Mrs. Volkman studied other images before sketching and painting the portrait from an enlargement of the original picture. Throughout the project, she used her remembrances to capture her friend's humility and humor. "It was a privilege, " she said of putting Father Dmitri on canvas.
Lynne Scalia, another close friend of Father Dmitri, said, "It's definitely a fitting tribute. I think the artist captured the caring personality. The artist said she was "absolutely delighted" with the finished portrait. "It talked to me, smiled at me and watched me everywhere I went," she said. "I hated to take it out of the house."
"It's a gift that his friends have given to him and I think he would have been honored," Scalia added. Scalia, Bull and Ligammari are all part of a group of Father Dmitri's close friends who formed the Friends of St. Peregrine. The group was created to carry out their friend's wish: Spread the message of the little known saint of cancer patients. Through the group's work, a wood statue of St. Peregrine now stands in Mount St. Mary's chapel.
And now, through the nursing staff's devotion and one artist's talent,
their friend is with them. "He's in all of our hearts and in all of our
minds and that warranted a physical presence," Ligammari said. "I
always feel like he's with me, giving me strength."