Brother Mark Elder makes an art of spirituality

By Cliff Terry Vincentian Brother Mark Elder, creator of some of the most striking murals in the United States and elsewhere, uses art in his quest to help the poor and disenfranchised.

Image: MARK ELDER in front of the Pilsen Neighbors Community Council mural in Chicago.

WHEN MARK ELDER,
a Vincentian brother, is asked why he became a brother instead of a priest, he likes to reply, “I didn’t want to work on Sundays."

“It’s a joke, of course," he says with a grin. “But there’s a small bit of truth to that."

As a child, Mark Elder had familiar boyhood dreams of what he wanted to be. A professional baseball player, perhaps. Certainly, a Marine fighter pilot like his dad. But life takes its own turns, and Mark Elder is not only a member of the Congregation of the Mission (the Vincentians) but a highly respected instructor of art, university public art coordinator at Chicago’s DePaul University, and creator of some of the most striking murals in the United States and elsewhere.

In fact, Elder’s students at DePaul often ask him to explain the difference between being a brother and a priest. “I try to pin it down the best I can," he says. “I tell them that, traditionally, brothers were mostly monastic, and they would ordain a few of them as priests to serve their needs [for Mass and the sacraments]. But the Vincentians are different. They’re a religious group that’s mainly a group of priests—and then there are a few knuckleheads like me. But basically we all strive to do various works for the evangelization of the poor and disenfranchised as best we can.

“I liked the idea of religious life, but there were some things about the priesthood that wouldn’t be too conducive for me. So I’d rather stay as a brother, do the work, and let it go at that. I can’t really put my finger on any one thing. I knew I’d have a har