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March 15, 2014
Mural at St. Paul’s Friary

THIRTEENTH CIRCUIT JUDGE REX BARBAS, center, was “volunteered” by his wife, Donna, right, to help paint a mural at St. Paul’s Friary in Clearwater. The scene depicts humble St. Francis celebrating Christmas with friars, with the open-mouthed friar on the far right bearing a striking resemblance to Judge Barbas. Brother Mark, left, is pleased.

Judge paints mural for Franciscan brothers in Clearwater

By Jan Pudlow
Senior Editor

When Brother Mark traveled to Franciscan friaries in Europe, he admired impressive murals on the walls. But at St. Paul’s Friary in Clearwater — a converted motel where he lives with other Franciscan brothers who return from missions and hope to escape the winter cold — there was a blank wall in the dining hall crying out for a mural.

He found an artist in Ecuador willing to take his drawing of St. Francis celebrating Christmas with friars, but the charge was a whopping $10,000.

While visiting a clinic where Donna Barbas worked, Brother Mark showed her the picture and shared his hopes for a mural. He asked if she could help spread the word to help him raise the funds.

In a spontaneous moment that changed everything, Donna looked at the picture and blurted out that she and her husband, 13th Circuit Judge Rex Barbas, were artists and they would be happy to paint the mural — for free.

And that’s how Judge Barbas and his wife ended up at the friary just about every Sunday afternoon for nine months, standing on ladders and painting the 8-foot-by-10-foot mural, pausing to share lunches and conversations with Franciscan brothers who became like family.

While Donna and Rex are artists who share a studio, they usually paint 24-inch paintings in oil, and had never before attempted a gigantic mural in acrylics. Never before had they collaborated on the same artwork.

“If you notice in the mural, the guy on the far right, that’s me. My wife painted me in there, the one with his mouth wide open. She was upset with me that day. The irony is everyone recognizes me, and I’m not sure I like it,” Judge Barbas said with a laugh.

Judge Barbas agreed he would take vacation time between Christmas and New Year’s 2013 to get started on the mural. The job was bigger than he imagined, when he discovered that the whole wall was flaking and he had to sand it down and replaster before applying primer, and then drawing the mural by hand.

“Believe me, Brother Mark refereed a time or two between us,” Donna Barbas said. “I was working on St. Francis, the one kneeling down. I was painting a piece of bread in his hand. And Rex was so obsessed about me getting the bread right that he wasn’t focusing on what he was doing. That led to a fight, which was taken out to the courtyard.”

Judge Barbas was quick to add: “Where all the friars got to hear the argument!”

But mostly, it was a wonderful experience, a rare form of community service that Judge Barbas calls “truly a labor of love.”

One of the families Brother Mark ministers to actually joined in, too, with four children ages 8 to 14 sponging paint on the background to make the wall look old.

“We’re proud of it,” Judge Barbas said. “It’s really just the joy of giving. We were literally giving of our talents. And we always looked forward to going over and doing it together, such a wonderful feeling.”

Donna added with a chuckle: “It didn’t hurt that Brother Mark has a winery at the friary.”

Christmas cards from the Barbases depict the mural, with Rex’s words explaining that St. Francis wears a beggar’s hat and carries a beggar’s staff. Instead of the wine and feast enjoyed by the brothers, St. Francis chose to sit on the floor to “remind his brothers of the true meaning of Christmas — the coming of the promise and the poor surroundings of our Lord at birth.”

The mural was dedicated on November 10. It later dawned on Judge Barbas that the little dedication party fell on his deceased father’s birthday, whose middle name is Francis — just another little sign that they were meant to volunteer their time to create the mural.

At the friary on Somerset Street near Clearwater Beach, Brother Mark said: “I’m delighted. I look at it every day and think: ‘OK, I know what I’m supposed to be,” explaining the theme of the mural, where the other brothers are embarrassed that St. Francis was dressed as a pilgrim and humbly sitting on the floor.

“For us, it’s become a reminder of our role and our goals we have in our life: humbleness. We didn’t want anything ostentatious, and we didn’t want to get away from our style of life,” Brother Mark said.

“Then we have Pope Francis come along and embrace that same kind of life: Look out for the poor, be caring, and nothing ostentatious.”

Brother Mark got to know Donna and Rex Barbas very well during those nine paint-splattered months.

“I must say, I still miss their Sunday afternoons with us.”

[Revised: 07-20-2014]