How Indigenous and Catholic art came together in B.C. artist's unique garments for Pope Francis

When Pope Francis celebrates mass at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton on Tuesday, he will wear vestments in a design created by a visual artist from the Nisga'a Nation in British Columbia.

Nisga'a Nation artist Julia Kozak has created vestments for pontiff's Edmonton mass

A woman standing with her arms spread wide to show off a colourful piece of clothing.
Nisga'a Nation visual artist Julia Kozak, who has created vestments for Pope Francis to wear when he celebrates mass in Edmonton on Sunday, displays a powwow shawl she designed. (Dennis Kovtun/CBC)

When Pope Francis celebrates mass on Tuesday at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, he will unveil unique liturgical vestments in a design combining Catholic and Indigenous artistic traditions.

Julia Kozak, a visual artist and traditional powwow dancer from the Nisga'a Nation in northwestern British Columbia, has been working on the design of the vestments for several weeks.

Kozak and her husband, members of the papal visit organizing team, spoke to media Thursday at the Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton.

They didn't reveal the final design for the vestments the Pope will wear — they are still under wraps — but Kozak did show another of her creations, a bright red powwow shawl.

"Archbishop [Richard] Smith ... had a few ideas that he proposed and he said this is something he would like to see, these kinds of elements in it, and [asked] if those can be worked into it," Kozak said.

"Some of the elements that I tried to incorporate, and what I hope people will see from this design, [are] going to the past and how we've treated people, and how people have been treated."

Visual storytelling, and beads

The storytelling component of the design was important, she said. The Nisga'a Nation's storytelling tradition goes back thousands of years, with most of it being transmitted orally or visually.

Kozak drew from those traditions, selecting specific shapes, lines and curves and combining them with Catholic symbolism. 

One of the design elements is an image of the Cross with water flowing from it. Specifically requested by Archbishop Smith, it symbolizes renewal and transformation through baptism. 

Kozak said her biggest challenge in designing the vestments was finding ways to incorporate the many ideas that came to her, and learning how to cut the material in specific shapes to make sure the design had artistic flow. She worked with the help of a seamstress.

Her design also incorporates beads, including some passed down to her from her mother, grandmother and mother-in-law.

"As I'm working on the beadwork and stitching things on, I am very conscious and mindful of keeping thoughts in my mind for prayers of blessing for people and prayers for hope and prayers for healing," she said.

A woman holds up a colourful piece of clothing.
Kozak shows the back side of a powwow shawl she designed. (Dennis Kovtun/CBC)

Kozak's design left an impression on her husband.

"When I first saw my wife's design for these papal vestments, I clearly saw worlds coming together — things that are based on iconography and symbolism in Indigenous cultures, especially from the Nisga'a Nation and the West Coast people of these lands, and traditional Catholic symbology," Adam Kozak said.

He believes the vestments and their visual storytelling will appeal to non-Indigenous people, too, and help them recognize injustices of the past.

Thousands of other Indigenous artists in Canada are producing works in the same tradition, he noted. "As a country that's healing, there's so many voices in this conversation."

Julia Kozak said she'd like to do more artistic projects of this type.

"I did feel very, very inspired," she said. "And there's new avenues, new things that I can try and new things that I can work on. I'm looking forward to taking time, and setting aside time, to sit down and work on things, and really intentionally work on more projects."


Dennis Kovtun


Dennis Kovtun is a journalist with CBC Edmonton, covering a variety of stories in the city. Reach him at dennis.kovtun@cbc.ca.