Written by Carol Baass Sowa, for Today’s Catholic
“There is no such thing as a coincidence in life,” says Father Clyde Rausch, OMI. “God’s got plans bigger than we’ll ever understand.” He should know. Surrounded by the inspiring icons he creates in his artist’s studio at the Oblate Renewal Center, his life is a far cry from his childhood days on the plains of northern South Dakota, where he was born on his parents’ farm.
Becoming a priest – or an artist – was not something he aspired to as a boy although, attending a Catholic school in his 99 percent Catholic community, the nuns who taught him were zealous encouragers of religious vocations. For girls, “somebody in the family should become a nun,” he recalls. “For boys, it was priest or religious brother, so it was always in the back of my mind.”
Art was not even on his radar, although his mother had an artistic bent and his father had skills in carpentry and drawing. Father Rausch liked to draw and had enjoyed drawing blueprints since childhood, he admits, but the only paintbrush he had ever touched was to paint the house or barn.
Yet, as a priest on a far continent, the “coincidence” of an iconographer being invited to serve as an “ice-breaker” in building a relationship with reclusive villagers would lead to his own ministry through iconography, an ancient style of religious art that originated in the Greek Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches. “I just think it was God’s hand leading me to that,” he says.
But first would come the South Dakota farm boy being drawn to the Oblates through correspondence with their vocations director. Bombarded with impersonal mimeographed letters from various orders when he began high school, he did not feel ready to enter a seminary at the young age of 14. The Oblate representative, however, had sent a personal letter and the two continued to exchange letters through the future Father Rausch’s high school years.
Clinching the deal for his Oblates choice was their missionary work. Father Rausch’s parents had instilled a spirit of curiosity in him with their annual three-week family vacations, traveling around the country after the crops were in. “I love South Dakota, but I didn’t want to stay there,” he says. “I wanted to be in a bigger context.”
This led him to enter the Oblate’s minor seminary in Missouri after high school, their novitiate in Illinois, philosophy school in Mississippi and more studies at Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, where he was ordained in 1968. He had experienced a goodly section of America but his travels were soon to expand even farther.
His Oblate province had opened missions in Brazil and Sweden, and young Father Rausch was told he was being considered for Recife, Brazil. The heat and humidity in Mississippi had caused him serious allergy problems, however, and he foresaw the same in Recife. “I couldn’t breathe in Mississippi,” he notes. Instead, he put in a request for Sweden, though had no background in the land or the language. Growing up in South Dakota, Sweden’s cold climate would be no problem.
And, as it turned out, he had an ear for languages. “That was a gift I didn’t know until I got there,” he says. He became fluent in Swedish and able to converse in Norwegian and Danish as well. On the side, he learned Spanish, Italian, French, German and Russian, using an intense immersive method in which he would study for a month with a private tutor. Russian, with its Cyrillic alphabet, took four months, but also enabled him to understand Polish.
For 16 years, Father Rausch ministered in Stockholm. The Swedes were not easy to get to know, he recalls. Though not unfriendly, they were of a more contemplative, withdrawn nature. Lutheranism was the primary religion, but a number of people told him they were atheists, including children who gave that as their reason for refusing to make their First Communion. “I learned, gradually, that I never met an atheist in Sweden,” he observes. “If you really talked closely to them, and you were willing to talk, you met an agnostic.”
In Stockholm, he visited medieval churches that had originally been Catholic but became Lutheran following the Reformation. Unlike their northern European counterparts though, there had been no wholesale removal of their Catholic art and liturgical furnishings. “In Sweden,” he recalls, “they kept everything, including tabernacles.” Visiting these churches, he noted the simple but beautiful art style depicting biblical scenes.
Father Rausch remembered this when he later moved to northern Sweden for two and a half years of missionary ministry in a small, rural Catholic parish not far from the Arctic Circle. “After 15 years of getting to know, somewhat, the Swedish people and their temperaments and religiosity,” he relates, “I thought to myself that maybe the art work like in the old churches might speak more to them.” It was similar to the icons of Eastern churches, and he suggested bringing in an Orthodox priest from Holland who had become well-known in Sweden for painting icons and giving courses in this. They invited area residents to attend and two or three Catholics, along with Baptists, Methodists and Lutherans showed up for the first session.
Everyone warmed to the classes and within a year Father Rausch had learned enough to teach classes himself. They always began with commentary on the Scripture and motivation behind the image chosen to paint. In time, classes picked their own topics for discussion and painting. When Father Rausch had to leave, an Oblate brother continued teaching the class for 30 years. “He turned out to be quite a missionary through the means of icons and paintings,” he relates.
Father Rausch next became the Oblates’ Provincial for Scandinavia, then their first American General Councilor for Europe. After that, came nine years as treasurer for the Oblates’ General House in Rome. In 2013, he returned to the Oblate Renewal Center, helping oversee the retreat house grounds and buildings and in charge of the carpentry shop. (He also builds church furniture.)
After a sabbatical to care for his aging mother, he returned to the center, setting up his present studio, where he creates icons and conducts classes in making them, as well as doing outside presentations. He accepts commissions, a recent one portraying St. Teresa of Calcutta for a church, and has had prints of his icons turned into all-occasion cards displayed on a wall in the center’s reception area. All proceeds from the cards go to an Oblate ministry for the poor and most abandoned in Tijuana, Mexico, especially children.
“I’m really happy that it can continue to be an evangelizing thing,” he says of his iconography. “My health isn’t good enough to be out there, running around, and I can’t do that in that way anymore, but I’ve found a way, I think, to do it that meets where I’m at, so long as God wants to continue to use me.” He adds, “It’s like painting an icon. It will be finished when it’s finished.”