A glimmering mosaic of the Sacred Heart of Jesus now stands out in the middle of the busy Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights neighborhoods of Washington thanks to the hard work of students, teachers and parents from Sacred Heart School, who spent the first week of October hand-placing each tile of the new mosaic onto a wall in front of their school.

Families were asked to bring in plates, tiles and coins from their homes, which were then cut into small pieces and cemented to the wall. The centerpiece of the new mosaic is the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and it has branches coming from the bottom to symbolize growth. Around the sides, there are colorful spirals that the teachers gave students the freedom to design.

“I think it represents the nature of our school; the mixture of culture and color we have here,” said Capuchin Franciscan Father Moisés Villalta, the pastor of the Shrine of the Sacred Heart in Washington.

The school community brought in coins from Peru, Argentina, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Europe and Ethiopia, as well as some from closer to home, like Metro and Smithsonian tokens. They placed these in the mosaic, along with a few tokens of special saints, like Padre Pio, a Capuchin saint, and Blessed Óscar Romero, a Salvadoran archbishop who was martyred while celebrating Mass in 1980 and was beatified in 2015.

Distinct like its new mosaic, Sacred Heart School is the only school in the Archdiocese of Washington that is fully bilingual. It serves students from many different countries, especially in Latin America, and is also one of the four center-city schools that make up the archdiocese’s Consortium of Catholic Academies, a network of schools that reach out to underserved communities in Washington.

The mosaic wall is on the front side of the steps that lead up to the school’s entrance, which used to house a mural that was constantly fading and chipping, despite frequent touch-ups. Ellen Lafferty, the school’s visual arts teacher who has done lots of stained glass artwork, suggested that they replace it with a mosaic. Then, Elise Heil, the school’s principal, traveled to El Salvador with several teachers during spring break, and the group was sold on the idea when they saw a mosaic near where Archbishop Romero was killed.

Their vision became a reality during the week of Oct. 2-6 as the entire school worked together to cut tile and place it piece by piece to create a colorful pattern.

“It takes all these little tiny pieces to make something beautiful,” said Heil, who added that the process is a metaphor for how it takes everyone in the school to contribute to make it great. “Everyone should bring their culture to the table to bring our community to its full potential,” she said.

The mosaic creation took place in week following the shooting in Las Vegas, and the teachers and administrators saw it as a sign of hope amid the tragedy and trauma going on in the world. Not only were they spending time creating a literal image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, but they also were creating a loving, supportive community at the school, said Heil.

“It’s a nice reminder that the world can be a little bit crazy…but the end of the story is we’re all here together and…we are going to make something beautiful,” said Kristen Kullberg, the eighth grade homeroom and middle school language arts teacher who took one of the lead roles in the mosaic creation.

Kullberg added that she enjoyed honoring the craft of many of the school parents who do that type of work for a living, such as Christian Hernández. He is the father of a second grader at the school, and was using his 12 years of tiling experience to help build the mosaic. Through a student translator, Hernández told the Catholic Standard that he enjoyed seeing the union of students and teachers working together on the project.

This project relates to a book called Maybe Something Beautiful that Kullberg said she has read to students of all ages at the school. She explained that the story is about a young girl who walks around her neighborhood and discovers how art can transform it.

“It’s about walking around your world with open eyes and an open heart and seeing the opportunity to make something beautiful,” said Kullberg. “That’s public service.”

As they were working on the project, the teachers saw many people walk by and say “Oh wow,” admiring the art from afar.

“Even people we didn’t plan to be involved are involved,” said Kullberg, noting that the hardware store down the street where she bought supplies gave her free gloves because they noticed her hands were cut from the tiles. Parents were also eager to participate, and Kullberg would hand them a tile to place on the wall when she noticed them watching their kids with intrigue.

“I get a lot of support here,” said Lafferty, who appreciates how much the school community rallied behind this idea and other ways to incorporate art into education. “…I think we are so tech-based, so plugged in, that people forget what it’s like to exercise a different element of the brain,” she added, noting that she often hears people say they had forgotten how much they enjoyed painting.

“It’s really fun putting on the tiles and coming up with your own design,” said eighth grader Abigail Huerta, who helped work on purple and yellow spirals in the mosaic.

“The teachers are really trusting us to do things and it’s good they have confidence in us,” said eighth grader Jessica Sanchez as she cut tiles to hand off to the students placing them in the mosaic. “We’re enjoying that we’re doing something that will represent the school so well and our cultures and our families.”

As students hurried to complete the mosaic during their last day of work, Marguerite Conley, the executive director of the Consortium of Catholic Academies, visited to see the artwork.

“This is the essence of learning,” said Conley. “It’s an experience they will never forget…this is what happens when you have a leader who thinks outside the box…that’s the Holy Spirit at work right there.”

And in addition to the value of the art process, Conley said the final product will “help every parent, child and teacher who walks in [the school] remember what we’re about.”

“To see this as you walk in centers your whole day,” she said.

Underneath those steps that will carry students and teachers into the school, and at the center of the mosaic heart, is a window that peers inside of the building. After looking past the colorful tiles and the hard work that went into their placement, Lafferty said the view inside of the window shows “we are all in the Sacred Heart of Jesus.”