A sketchbook, an artist and a priest

A sketchbook, an artist and a priest

A statue of Saint Juan Diego stands in Saint Lawrence Church, Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, Lindenwold. The statue is placed in front of a mural depicting the story of the appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe to him. Below, Father Vincent Guest and the mural artist, Edward Ortiz Buendia.
Photos by James A. McBride

Seated in one of the small wooden pews at Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine in Lindenwold, Edward Ortiz Buendia pulls out a sketchbook from the worn leather bag that sits at his feet. It is full of life, his life, and a running stream of images that span a lively history and an ever-present faith.

Like Buendia himself, the images surprise in the range of experiences they represent. He first flips past pen and ink drawings of Tom Tower at the University of Oxford, Christ Church, in England, where he studied in the late 1980s. He’s still filled with wonder that “a Mexican American boy — a boy from the desert” got to study in the same place where Lewis Carroll taught and was inspired to write “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

The sketches depict the mundane as well: the McDonald’s on the White Horse Pike just down the road from the shrine, and excruciatingly detailed anatomical drawings of Buendia’s own foot when he underwent surgery a couple of years ago, leaving him disabled, but still upright, still walking on his own two feet. Buendia’s sketchbook is a visual catalog of images from life that he adds to daily.

It’s an inspired life, one that brought the artist to Lindenwold last March with his wife Darlanne to visit their daughter, son-in-law, and new baby grandson for a few months. It also brought him into the life of Father Vincent Guest, then-newly assigned to Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in May of this year.

Together on the bus ride in October to Washington, D.C., as part of the biannual diocesan pilgrimage to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the two men found a connection. Father Guest felt a call to beautify and renew the shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe that’s part of the parish church, with a special spot to tell the story of her miraculous appearance to Saint Juan Diego.

And Buendia knew that he could help. Coincidentally, it might seem, he had gotten the last ticket for the bus that day. And as always, he had brought his sketch book along.

As Father Guest explained to Buendia, he had a strong sense of mission related to this particular project. He envisioned the story of Guadalupe told in artwork, from Our Lady’s appearance to the Mexican peasant, to his encounters with the skeptical priest and bishop, to the miracle of the roses spilling from the tilma, Juan Diego’s cloak, which finally convinced the bishop of the truth of the peasant’s urgent message that the Blessed Virgin intended for a church to be built on the site of her appearance.

That day, at the basilica in Washington, Edward Ortiz Buendia began to do the sketches that would make Father Guest’s dream a reality.

It all happened so quickly. In less than three weeks, Buendia painted the mural depicting the whole story, and a statue arrived from Mexico to represent Saint Juan Diego in place dedicated especially to him. The mural was completed just in time for the feast of Saint Juan Diego earlier this month, on Dec. 9.

“The message of Our Lady to Saint Juan Diego is the same as her message to us today,” Father Guest says. “Her message is to build the church into a community of love, in our homes and in our families. The mission,” he emphasizes, “continues right here today.”

And the artist’s work continues as well. After the New Year, he plans to finalize his work on the project. He’ll complete an embellishment depicting Mary’s love for the world on the overhead wall that connects the shrine to the larger parish church of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The mantle of the Blessed Mother now wraps around the interior of the shrine itself, enlivened with Aztec symbols representing Saint Juan Diego. From the mantle, roses spill across the wall in a cascade of colors streaming from the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe that hangs at the shrine’s center. Father Guest describes the transformation of the space by Buendia’s work.

The artwork enfolds the visitor with the message that “I am your mother; I want to wrap you in my compassionate arms,” Father Guest says. Ultimately, “the story leads to faith in her Son.” And he points out that the Lindenwold parish represents the only shrine to our Lady of Guadalupe in the Diocese of Camden and the state of New Jersey. He envisions it as a pilgrimage site.

For Buendia, the work is not just satisfying — it fulfills his life’s purpose. “I’m a layman for the church,” he says. “With my work, I tell a story.”

And his work can be found around the globe, in South America, Mexico, Africa, Australia and in the archives at Christ Church along with the work of Michelangelo and other masters. Of particular significance are six murals Buendia painted in Coachella, in Southern California, inspired by the work of those he calls the “Big Five”: Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Gabriel Orozco, Frida Kahlo and Rufino Tamayo, all giants of the Mexican Muralist movement.

Buendia’s work has also been inspired by his family’s close friendship with the late César Chávez, founder of the United Farm Workers who reached his peak of influence in the 1960s and ‘70s as the legendary, sometimes controversial, champion of the labor rights movement. “All that he did,” Buendia says, pointing gently to the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, “was inspired by her.”

And for Buendia, these many sources of inspiration will draw him back to the West Coast sometime in the late spring of 2017. He’ll be doing restoration work on one of his earlier murals in Coachella before he and Darlanne finally head back to their current home in Washington State later that year.

“It’s a journey for me to create my work,” he says with a smile.

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