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 CNS Story:

MEDALS May-9-2006 (720 words) xxxn

Artist sending St. Joan of Arc medals to U.S. military in Iraq

By Pat Norby
Catholic News Service

ST. PAUL, Minn. (CNS) -- The die has been cast -- in Michigan. Soon, St. Joan of Arc medals will travel across the world to place the saint's protective armor on soldiers serving in Iraq because of the work of St. Paul artist Pat Benincasa.

"I feel heaven's in charge. ... All I have to do is make this medal and get out of the way," said Benincasa, a member of St. Stanislaus Parish in St. Paul. "As far as I'm concerned, Joan is riding again."

Benincasa said she wants every soldier serving in Iraq to receive one of the St. Joan medals she designed.

The image is based on a 6-by-7-foot painting she was working on two years ago but set aside.

"I paint saints, and my aim is to release them from these plaster cliches and formula paintings, so they can be free to inspire and guide and challenge us to get back to our basic values," she said in an interview with The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese.

About six months ago, Benincasa said, a news report about the lack of body armor for the troops in Iraq "mentally knocked the wind out of me." She wanted to do something but didn't know what that might be.

On April 8, she opened her studio door and saw Joan, big as life.

"I saw her on the wall, and I thought, 'Yes, of course, I'm going to build a different kind of body armor -- a medal for our troops,'" she said.

Benincasa has been on fire ever since. She did about 50 drawings on her computer, and then had to figure out how to put the image into a medal. "I'd never struck a medal before," she said.

She searched the Internet for a metal fabricator to cast the steel plate -- the die -- with which the medals would be made. She found Mission Awards in Grawn, Mich.

When Benincasa started the project, she was praying, asking if that was what God wanted her to do.

Then came a conversation during conferences at Hill-Murray School in Maplewood, where she is an artist in residence.

When John and Judy Tripp, whose daughter, Rebecca, is a student at Hill-Murray, walked up to talk with Benincasa, she felt compelled to show them a drawing of her medal. John Tripp, in turn, pulled out a picture of their older daughter, Katharine, a Hill-Murray graduate who is in her second year at West Point.

As a college going-away present, the Tripps had given her a St. Joan of Arc medal. "We gave her a Joan of Arc medal because Joan is the patron saint of soldiers," John Tripp said. "We talked to Katie a couple of nights later, and she said she still has the medal and thought it was neat that fate brought (the Tripps and Benincasa) together."

So, with $500 that Benincasa had set aside from other artwork commissions, she decided to get as many medals made as possible and send them to the troops.

"I envisioned it to be a one-shot project," she said, but that changed when she sent an e-mail to family, friends and clients telling them about her project.

"Immediately, I'm getting checks in the mail -- $50, $1,000, $500 -- saying please put this toward the medals," she said.

When the company lowered its cost, she signed a contract for 1,000 medals, and put information on her Web site, www.patbenincasa-art.com, on how to buy packs of 50 or 100 medals, each with a card that tells the story of St. Joan.

She also encourages people who are sending medals to write a letter to each soldier who would get a medal.

A Catholic school in Georgia soon e-mailed, saying it wanted to send the medals as a school project.

On April 27, Benincasa received an e-mail from a chaplain in Iraq asking her to send him 500 medals. He also advised her not to mark the outside of the package with any religious symbols, because it might be confiscated.

So with $1,650 in donations plus her own $500 she has enough to pay for the medals the chaplain requested, she said. She planned to make that first shipment in May.


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