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A designing Villanova priest and the art of the vestment

Few materials are off limits when the Rev. Richard Cannuli is creating the majestic robes worn by clergy as they lead the faithful in worship.

The Augustinian priest, artist and designer has used fabric scraps meant for Indian saris and garden canopies, jade stones dating to the 1890s and silk flowers from the neighborhood craft store. Father Cannuli conceives, cuts and sews liturgical vestments that he says should complement religious ritual, never distract.

Yet many of the stunning garments that hang on the racks in his studio in Villanova call out for attention. They portray a swirling crimson fire in a robe perfect for a Pentecost service, or come emblazoned with bright yellow sunflowers to symbolize not only the largest orb in the sky, but a heavenly savior.

"I feel that when I am working and creating, I am most in contact with God," said Father Cannuli, a professor of studio art at Villanova University, director of its gallery and curator of its art collection.

For decades, he has used his virtuosity as a form of worship.  He has become an internationally-known artist and teacher specializing in iconography, the Byzantine-style images of religious figures that are the traditional art form of the Eastern Orthodox Church.  Along with vestments, he designs stained glass windows, liturgical furniture and prayer rugs.

Now, at age 70, he is preparing for a change in the weft and warp of his life. He must move out of his studio at the Augustinian residence just off campus, his artistic home for the past 26 years. His religious community needs the small stone cottage full of sewing machines, threads, and fabrics as a new residence for priests.

So, on Friday, Father Cannuli began his leave-taking. He says he will sell and donate some of his sewing materials, and may even host a yard sale as he prepares to work, for now, in a smaller space – his bedroom at another Augustinian residence nearby.

Moving out "is not a great feeling, but I think it's going to be OK," he said. "It's always good to clean out."

Downsizing may be an alien concept for a priest who, over a long career of growing renown, has designed vestments for clergy in Poland, Italy and Japan; created stained glass depictions of the saints for a chapel at Villanova, and overseen the liturgical redesign of a Carmelite monastery in Denmark, Wisc. In 2013, one of his icons was presented to Pope Francis by the Augustinian order.

Father Cannuli has been instrumental in helping to foster an appreciation for iconography in the western church, said the Rev. John Perich, pastor of St. Herman of Alaska Orthodox Church in Glen Mills and a curator of Eastern Orthodox art who has collaborated with Father Cannuli on area exhibitions. "He has developed a spiritual love of ecclesiastical art, which is basically the theology of the church in color and line," Rev. Perich said.

Father Cannuli's design talents surfaced while he was growing up in South Philadelphia, the only child in a working-class family. His dad, Anthony, operated a corner store with family members at 17th and Dickinson Streets.  His mother, Marianna, sewed military uniforms at the U.S. Marine Corps Quartermaster Depot, then at Broad Street and Washington Avenue.

At home, the boy watched her sew in the basement, often making awnings for grocery stores and funeral parlors. He would pull the heavy fabric through as his mother stitched on the machine.

"The first time I used a sewing machine, I broke it," he said. "I tried to fix it and I took it apart, but I couldn't put it back together. My father did. But I thought, 'This sewing machine is cool.'"

Next door lived John Cardello, head tailor at Boyd's clothing store in Center City. Father Cannuli spent much of his childhood watching him make suits in his basement.

"He gave me his scissors when he couldn't see anymore," said the priest, who still uses them daily.

His early exposure to sewing and tailoring led to a broader interest in art. At the same time, he began to consider religious life.  "Being an only child, I thought community life would be very interesting," he said.

As a teenager, he admired the bond among the Augustinian brothers at St. Rita's Church in South Philadelphia, as they lived their vows of poverty and carried out their mission of helping others. He entered the community at age 20, after graduating from what was then Bishop Neumann High School. He went on to earn a bachelor's degree in fine arts from Villanova University and a master's degree in fine arts from the Pratt Institute in New York.

In 1985, Father Cannuli began studying iconography with Vladislav Andrejev, a Russian émigré and classically trained master of the art who lives in Whitney Point, N.Y.  Olga Andrejev, the artist's wife and translator, described him as a "dedicated and eager" student.

"For me, to look at an icon is to contemplate the creator," said Father Cannuli, who has gone on to teach iconography at Villanova and at workshops in England, Italy, Poland, and the Czech Republic.

He was in the early days of study with the Augustinians when the Italian nuns who cooked and kept house for the priests taught him how to make everyday habits. He produced long black robes, but eventually began to see the plain garments as blank canvases. When a friend asked him to make vestments for the 25th anniversary of his ordination, the flame was lit.  For his friend, he designed a cream-colored robe with a panel bearing a metallic silver cross bordered in red.

Father Cannuli sells his habiliments now for $450 to $3,500, and lends out some.

Before the move, he could be found on most days in his studio, a cluttered treasure chest of figurines, spools of paper, religious crosses, blots of fabric, religious books and family pictures.  By his side has been assistant Megan Wieder, a Villanova student who is studying iconography.

"I'm learning so much about symbolism and new techniques," she said. "He blows my mind sometimes."

For now, Father Cannuli is preparing an exhibit of his vestments -- "little usable works of art," he calls them -- at Villanova in October. The show will also include his icons and water colors.

All of his artistic pursuits are "necessary endeavors," said his friend, Brother Bob Thornton, a clinical psychologist and fellow Augustinian.  "For him, and any artist, to create is to be who you are."