Tony Manzella '58 SA knew from the time he was an elementary student attending St. Augustine School in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans that he had a God-given, artistic talent.
The Sisters of Mount Carmel, who taught him the Catholic faith through example, also encouraged his talent, so much so that in fifth or sixth grade, a nun invited him to draw a Christmas Nativity scene in colored chalk on a blackboard, that, he said, remained untouched years after he graduated and went to St. Aloysius High School nearby.
Because he could capture vivid likenesses of people, the Brothers of the Sacred Heart, who taught at St. Aloysius and also were strong teachers of faith, suggested he do pastel portraits.
“You are very accurate with your drawings, you ever try portraits?” he recalled Brother Dean asking him. “If you could draw somebody’s face … that’s accuracy.”
Manzella said he believes “the good Lord had it set in place” so he could later draw him and evangelize.
He received $35 a portrait for 12 hours of work, completing one a week during high school. “More than they got in the French Quarter at the time,” he said. “I had a little money in my pocket.”
Shortly after graduation, he joined the Army Reserves, got married in 1960, started working and had children, leaving little time to paint. He was burned out and intended to take off only a year.
“I didn’t do another picture until 1991,” he said.
God’s plans fulfilled
In 1991, he saw a picture of Mary that a St. Clement of Rome ladies’ rosary group had photographed while in Medjugorje. The picture was so striking that it reignited Manzella’s artistic passion, and he drew the statue in pastel and presented it framed to the ladies.
“It wasn’t anything special to me,” he said. “All I did was make a duplicate. … The ladies went wild, and, ever since then, the ladies put it on a tripod for their meetings.”
Something began tugging on him to paint a companion piece of Jesus.
“I know Our Lady was working on me,” he said. “Three or four times a week, I would get the thought, ‘You gotta do a picture of Jesus.’ I knew I didn’t want to do a crucifixion picture or one with him wearing the crown of thorns, so I prayed to Mary to show me what she wanted.”
A man of prayer who annually attends retreats at the Jesuit Manresa Retreat House, Manzella happened to be watching the religious movie, “Jesus of Nazareth,” on television. The piercing blue eyes of the actor (Robert Powell) portraying Jesus as a grown man was his inspiration.
“I got the goosebumps and said, ‘That’s the picture.’ I thought I had it made,’ he said.
It took him almost two years – with treks to libraries, the archdiocesan archives, Pauline Books and Media, other religious stores, Notre Dame Seminary and even writing to Fox Studio that distributed the movie – but he could not find the picture.
He had given up and told the Blessed Mother so in prayer: “I didn’t know what else to do.”
While making a bank deposit two days later, a bank officer asked if he was still painting. Manzella mentioned his search for a Jesus image, and she said her daughter, as an exchange student, had brought back brochures from European churches that might fit his description.
“That was it,” Manzella said when he saw a black-and-white sketch. “I was happy and sad at the same moment. It was close to the movie but didn’t have the colors, no details or depth.”
He would have to employ his imagination to the drawing, something he had never done.
Again, he asked Mary to guide his hand.
“Tonight, I’m going to start this picture of your son,” he said. “I need your help.” He said three Hail Mary’s. That night, he sketched it in pencil.
After working several consecutive evenings, Manzella had his Jesus. He framed it, hung it on his dining room wall and made 60 copies for friends and families.
He thought he was finished. It was not unnoticed that it was completed between 1993 and 1994 – approximately 33 years after he had stopped painting, a parallel with Jesus’ death on the cross at age 33.
Blessed with Lourdes water
Jesuit Father Harold Cohen, who was involved with the charismatic movement, blessed the painting with Lourdes holy water at a ladies’ prayer group where Manzella was invited, saying, “May there be a special blessing upon this painting and to all those who look upon it.”
“That’s when Our Lady took over,” he said.
Within three months, Manzella said he had distributed 1,700 Jesus pictures. He was requested to write a prayer called “The Face of Jesus” that now accompanies his picture. To date, somewhere between 25,000-30,000 copies circulated worldwide. Manresa Retreat House and local churches have life-size versions, including his parish of 40 years St. Mary Magdalen in Metairie. He also drew a likeness of Father Earl Larose, former pastor at St. Mary Magdalen, for the chapel, and drew recently retired pastor Father Bob Massett, for the school cafeteria.
While he has taken donations to cover costs on copies and framing, he said he’s given more prints away than he received compensation. His fulfillment is redeemed from the thank-you notes, phone calls and prayers from people to whom the pastel drawing spoke.
He says his story is an example of Mary guiding us to Jesus, and how God bestows talents on people, who, hopefully, like Manzella, use it for good.
“Looking back, I can see what I went through – the two years when I had roadblocks preventing this picture from being done. In my thinking, in my talks with Our Lady, it had to be Satan who didn’t want this picture being done because she was involved. … Jesus’ picture has been all over the world … Our Lady deserves the credit for where we are with this picture. “
Christine Bordelon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.