FORT COLLINS, Colorado – When Pope Francis rolls into New York on his historic visit Thursday, he may run into a 220-foot version of himself, a mural that marks the untangling of a decade of threads and the conversion of two brothers.
Appropriately, Pope Francis is particularly devoted to the Blessed Virgin under her title Mary, Undoer of Knots.
Loveland resident Van Rainy Hecht-Nielsen painted the Pope Francis mural on an exterior wall at Madison Square Garden. Hecht-Nielsen converted to Catholicism more than 10 years ago.
Hecht-Nielsen’s brother, Clancy Nielsen, joined the Church Easter 2015 at Saint Joseph Catholic Church.
“It’s a long story. I traveled Europe and ended up at Lourdes,” Nielsen said in a telephone interview. Nielsen holds a B.A. in history with a minor in French. “That started the whole journey for me, more than 10 years ago.”
Nielsen’s brother the painter found firm direction in faith and fine art, taking on sculpture as well as painting and now has galleries in Texas and Arizona. Nielsen wandered, working odd jobs in Europe for many years, traveling and helping with grape harvests.
But regardless of where their lives took them, the brothers, two among five siblings, stayed in touch. “We were very close growing up,” said Nielsen. “His own witness has been key to my journey. We’ve had some intense, in-depth discussions.”
Nielsen administers tests at the Front Range Community College Testing Center and hopes to pursue his M.A. in history.
In 2014, a friend invited him to St. Joseph’s weekly Healing Holy Hour followed by Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. “That was the big turning point,” said Nielsen, who attended the services for a year. “It really kind of swayed me, the mystery, the spiritual experience. I was captivated.”
When Nielsen told his artist brother he wanted to convert, it was not a surprise. “He kind of saw it coming. He was glad, not surprised.”
Asked to describe being Catholic, Nielsen said, “Fraternity, brotherhood, unity.”
Nielsen recently used what he calls “the building analogy” when talking about Catholicism to an older brother who is not Catholic. St. Joseph Catholic Church’s story has a place in Nielsen’s analogy as its cornerstone was laid in 1900.
“If you’re outside a building, you see the walls, the exterior, and it may appear to be one thing. It’s so common for people to look at the outside and see some sort of relic,” he said. “Once you go inside the building, it may completely surprise you. You may find splendor, a treasure that you would never have guessed existed. You need to step inside the doors first.”
The first few months of being Catholic have left Nielsen in what he calls “kind of a growth state”.
“It’s different now,” he said. “There’s more I need to be aware of, the Liturgy, piety, the Sacraments. I’m still trying to figure all that out and develop habits conducive to weekly Mass attendance. I feel like I’m in kind of a growth state. I’ve thought about becoming a deacon. Right now, I’d just like to get married.”
His brother’s Pope Francis mural in New York has Nielsen thinking about life’s threads. The national attention the mural has drawn “underlines the connection between the local church and the Church universal,” Nielsen commented earlier to Fr. Steven Voss, our pastor.
Until now, New York’s Madison Square Garden facade boasted murals advertising Cadillacs. The Diocese of Brooklyn commissioned the Pope Francis project. Quips the New York Times, “It’s not quite a miracle on 34th Street, but it’s close.”
Read the Loveland-Reporter Herald story on the Pope Francis mural.
Follow the Pope’s historic visit to the United States.