The I Madonnari Festival has enjoyed a strong and long relationship with Father Virgil Cordano for more than two decades and we join the entire community in mourning his passing.

This year’s festival will be dedicated to his memory, with a portrait of Father Virgil becoming part of the featured artist’s drawing at the base of the Santa Barbara Mission steps.

I Madonnari, produced by the Children’s Creative Project, which is a program of the Santa Barbara County Education Office, was initially one of a year-long series of events that celebrated the Mission’s bicentennial in 1986. Father Virgil and the Mission’s bicentennial committee members worked with Kathy Koury, director of the Children’s Creative Project, to include the street painting festival in the Mission’s celebration. Koury had traveled to a street painting competition in Italy and created the concept of sponsored street painting squares as a fundraiser for the arts project. From that time, the festival has continued to grow and is now being replicated in dozens of other cities throughout the United States.

Father Virgil approved that first I Madonnari as one of a series of bicentennial events, spanning 1986-87. He worked closely with the festival the first year and was involved with production of the festival for 21 years ever since. Every year he provided the welcoming speech on the Mission steps. Within that speech, he often stressed the importance of the arts as an expression of the human spirit.

Father Virgil was very fond of the festival and was often seen enjoying the different aspects that the festival offers — the drawings, the concerts in the church, the music on the lawn. It was clear that he enjoyed the festival because it brings together the diverse aspects of the community to celebrate the arts. He was an inclusive spirit and often praised how the festival brought together members of various religious groups, different schools and different parts of the community.

“He truly embodied an all-inclusive, ecumenical approach to all he did, and always displayed his caring ways toward all groups,” said county Superintendent Bill Cirone. “He was loving and accepting of everyone and he will be greatly missed by all.”

The festival is deeply saddened by the loss of Father Virgil, and all that he has brought to the community, and is pleased to be dedicating this festival in his honor.

I Madonnari begins Saturday and runs through Monday, Memorial Day, at the Mission, 2201 Laguna St. Unfortunately, the weather forecast appears to be unsettled. Clouds and isolated showers are possible Saturday afternoon. Temperatures are expected to be in the low 60s through the weekend.

Wendy Shelton is communications director of the Santa Barbara County Education Office.