Every morning, Deacon Paul Sullivan of the Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island, logs on to the Vatican Press website to see if any new bishops have been appointed or reassigned around the world. It’s part of anticipating his coming workload. As one of the few heraldic designers in the United States, Deacon Sullivan partners with newly-elected bishops, archbishops and cardinals all across the world to create their customized “coat of arms.”
A coat of arms, or heraldic achievement, is a centuries-old tradition of creating graphic representations of significant persons, families or countries. Catholic bishops adopted the practice centuries ago when an increasing number of nobles received appointments to the episcopacy, bringing with them their family heraldry. Now, every newly elected bishop receives a coat of arms.
Deacon Sullivan has created two for Bishop Paul Etienne, the first when he was named bishop of the Cheyenne Diocese and most recently when he was named the new archbishop of Anchorage. Each time a bishop is appointed to a higher office, updates are made to his coat of arms.
“The Holy See has set out certain parameters that we have to stay within, certain ways of doing things,” Deacon Sullivan told the Catholic Anchor.
This includes increasing the number of tassels dangling on either side of the galero — or flat-brimmed hat — at the top of the design. There are six tassels per side for a bishop, 10 for an archbishop, and 15 for a cardinal.
Besides the galero, other common elements include a decorative shield, crosier and motto scroll.
The shield joins the arms (or insignia) of the diocese with those of the bishop. Archbishop Etienne’s new shield will replace the arms of the Diocese of Cheyenne with those of the Archdiocese of Anchorage. Deacon Sullivan also made minor changes to Archbishop Etienne’s arms, which includes symbols for Sacred Scripture, Saint Paul and the Blessed Mother.
Underneath the shield is the bishop’s episcopal motto. Archbishop Etienne’s is, “Veritas in Caritate” or “Truth in Love,” which represents his experience living the Gospel.
“The truth is demanding by nature and love is required not only to live the truth, but to preach the truth,” Archbishop Etienne explained by e-mail. “Thus my motto is to preach and live the truth in love. We as church do not desire to impose the truth upon anyone. Rather, we seek to propose the truth in all of its beauty, in love.”
Deacon Sullivan has served the church in this special capacity for 40 years. He made his first coat of arms for Bishop Eugene Gerber of the Diocese of Dodge City, Kansas, in 1976. Since then he has fashioned hundreds of designs for bishops in such far-away places as Papua New Guinea and Kenya — all done by hand. The retired computer programmer sketches his pieces with black ink on white illustration board. Once he finalizes his design, he replicates it on a white matte board and colors it using water-based paint. The original for the new archbishop was express-mailed to Anchorage.
Deacon Sullivan takes a lot of satisfaction from his artistry.
“It’s neat that I get to be very personal with the men who are called to what are very high offices in the church,” he said. “I’m dealing with them in a whole different vein, I’m there to help them, I’m not there to sell them something, I’m helping them to create a symbol of their office.”
In addition to Archbishop Etienne, Deacon Sullivan is working on designs for bishops in the Diocese of Alexandria, Louisiana, and Diocese of Lubbock, Texas.
Even so, Deacon Sullivan says he never cuts corners in any of his drawings, giving them the time and attention they need. Speaking of his recently-finished coat of arms for Archbishop Etienne he said, “It’s going to be in the archives of the Archdiocese of Anchorage forever.”