(Photo by Valerie Schmalz/Catholic San Francisco)
Msgr. Labib Kobti has covered the outer walls of San Francisco’s St. Thomas More Church with murals depicting the faithful’s global heritage.
Wanted at San Francisco church: topiary artist with a religious bent
September 29th, 2010
By Valerie Schmalz
Pastor Msgr. Labib Kobti donated his salary for a year to fulfill his dream for his church, St. Thomas More in San Francisco.
The vision: to create a series of murals on the church’s outside walls representing the many cultures that make up the community of St. Thomas More.
That project, begun almost a year ago, is close to finished. The outside is complete, but still in progress are murals inside the vestibule of the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes.
Now, Msgr. Labib is ready for the project’s next phase. His parish is looking for someone who would sculpt the many shrubs and trees around the church’s grounds into images of Christ as the Good Shepherd and other religious figures.
The object is to continue to create a place of refuge and spiritual retreat, he said.
The murals are a visually unifying symbol of the community of St. Thomas More Church, which draws distinct ethnic groups, students, and the elderly living at an adjacent assisted living center, Alma Via of San Francisco. The church is located on Brotherhood Way, a short street with the Park Merced housing development on one side and a series of churches and synagogues and religious schools on the other. St. Thomas More is also the designated campus ministry for San Francisco State University.
The Lebanese priest came to California in 1992 and established Arab Catholic Maronite missions in Pomona and in San Francisco. Ordained a priest in 1975, and with a Ph.D. in canon law from the Lateran University in Rome and a master’s in theology, Msgr. Kobti brought experience as a teacher, pastor, and marriage tribunal judge in Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Rome.
One of Msgr. Labib Kobti’s first acts as pastor after his assignment to St. Thomas More in 2002 was to invite his fellow religious leaders to join together in the Brotherhood Way Association.
The first mural on the outside of the church has the inscription “Interfaith and Ecumenical Dialogue and Sharing,” with a painting of the churches and synagogue along the street.
The second mural in the series is of Blessed Franciscan Father Junipero Serra, the founder of the California Missions. Others include saints of Arabs, Filipinos, Burmese, Italians, Irish, Spanish, and Brazilians. They include St. Rifqua, St.Hardini, St. Alphonsene, St.Sharbel, St. Patrick, St. Agatha, St. Martin de Porres, St. Lorenzo Ruiz, Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman (as the church is also a Newman Center), Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Infant Jesus, St. Damien, St. Therese of the Child Jesus, St. Pius X and St. Bakhata, who was a slave in Sudan.
St. Thomas More is also the home of the Arab American Catholic community. Msgr. Kobti celebrates the Maronite Rite using the Syro-Aramaic language of Jesus. In addition to English and Arabic, Msgr. Labib says Mass weekly in the Latin Rite in Portuguese and Tagolog and once a month in Burmese.
While the community of 1,500 is growing, it operates on a shoe string, he said. However, the generosity of parishioners is amazing, Msgr. Kobti said. For example, the initial bid for a new disabled-accessible restroom was in the tens of thousands of dollars, and the priest said there was nowhere to find that money. But an Arab-American parishioner who is a contractor offered to donate his labor if Msgr. Kobti could pay for materials. Total cost: $9,000.
A similar story is behind the church’s fresh coat of paint. The bid for that job was $100,000. So Msgr. Kobti purchased the paint and contacted parishioners and put parish maintenance workers to work. The cost, again, was about $9,000.
“Ask just for the glory of God,” Msgr. Kobti said, “and the rest will be given to you.”
From October 1, 2010 issue of Catholic San Francisco.