For some of us, growing up amid the hustle and bustle of city life proves to be a formative factor in our spiritual development. One might imagine a young Pope Francis energized and inspired by the hum of the city of Buenos Aires around him, full of so many possibilities to connect and preach the Gospel. There is another side to that coin, however—one that Francis of Assisi understood well—encountering God in nature and the beauty of creation. For Father Vincent Petersen, OFM Conv, this connection with the natural world was there from the start.
“I consider growing up in rural Minnesota in a Catholic family as that which shaped my understanding of God and my sense of creativity,” Father Vincent says. “The natural environment was a great attraction for me. I always had a strong affinity for the earth and the patterns of weather. Climbing trees, playing in the fields, and skating on frozen ponds in the winter with my siblings and the neighborhood kids was a big part of my youth.” Father Vincent was the seventh of 11 children, which meant “us middle kids often had to do unique things to get the attention of others,” he says.
Even early on, he took to the visual art forms. “I found joy in drawing pictures, and this would get the attention of my parents—especially my father, who was himself a cartoonist,” Father Vincent says. “His encouragement and affirmation set me on a course to pursue the arts later in high school and college.” Along with his love of drawing, Father Vincent felt a deep connection to the Catholic faith during his childhood. “Some of my fondest memories include attending Sunday Mass and evening vespers,” he recalls. “Many of the ancient melodies and chants of the Church are in my DNA.”
Doorway to Religious Life
Participating in both the peace movement and the pro-life movement in the late ’60s and early ’70s left huge impressions on Father Vincent. “My social justice sensitivities led me to the Catholic Charismatic Renewal [movement], where I rediscovered my Catholic faith and eventually my vocation to religious life and ordained ministry,” he says. Having considered diocesan priesthood and other religious orders, “it was the friars of the Province of Our Lady of Consolation that made the biggest impression on me,” Father Vincent recalls. “St. Francis and his relationship with creation and the poor was also a good fit for me. I am happy and proud to be a friar and will be celebrating 47 years as a member of this fraternity.”
Father Vincent had attended public schools all his life until he joined the Conventual friars and went on to study at St. Louis University. While there, he also studied fine art and focused on the medium of painting. After completing his studies and going through the formation process, Father Vincent was ordained a priest in 1985. Although art fell by the wayside during this time, it would later prove to be a pivotal piece of Father Vincent’s vocation.
For 15 years, he served in parish ministry across the Midwest and Southwest. And though Father Vincent was successful in building bridges in his parish community, he began to struggle with burnout. He needed a change but wasn’t sure which direction to take. Looking back now, Father Vincent can see how God was nudging him to realize his potential—both as a friar and as an artist.
Fanning the Artistic Flame
In 2002, at the encouragement of his fellow friars, Father Vincent took a sabbatical in Mexico, where he attended art classes. “It was there that the flame of creativity was reignited,” he says. “Since 2002, I have made the visual arts a significant part of my life and ministry.” Currently, Father Vincent is the Resident Friar Artist at the Mount Saint Francis Center for Spirituality in southern Indiana. The center offers various events, retreats, and programs, including art classes led by Father Vincent called Painting with the Padre. He teaches all levels and covers a number of techniques and styles, which keeps his creative juices flowing.
“For me, life without art is flat, dull, and soulless,” says Father Vincent. “The right-hand side of the brain is where creativity, spirituality, relationality, and prayer reside. They are all sisters, and they dance together. We all need to learn the steps of this dance first before we can understand and teach the important tenets of our faith.”
Father Vincent’s art classes are one of many offerings from the Province of Our Lady of Consolation’s Franciscan Arts Initiative. “Beginning in small and incremental ways, we want to celebrate the arts,” he says. “St. Francis of Assisi understood first and foremost that the call of the Gospel is a call to live more deeply our relationship with Christ and all created things.”
Painting classes, concerts, and other events at the center, which is situated next to a wildlife sanctuary, are often held outdoors. This helps to “fulfill the mission of Mount Saint Francis as a place of spiritual renewal and encounter,” says Father Vincent. “I belong here.”