Last May, I reported on my sabbatical project, which is a musical theater composition based on the writings of Julian of Norwich. This month, I’d like to introduce you to a member of my family who, like Julian, has chosen to live most of her life as a cloistered nun (albeit in a convent rather than a cell).
My mother’s cousin, Joan Schiefen, grew up in Appleton, Wisconsin, and showed an early talent for art. Encouraged by a high school mentor, she attended the school of the Art Institute of Chicago, and later studied with the famous Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiro. She was on the verge of a successful career in graphic design when a friend suggested she spend the spring semester in Rome, studying the plethora of art that is around every corner in that city. The year was 1959.
Though she was raised Catholic, she did not have any childhood ambition to join a religious order. Everything changed that spring in Rome. She felt a shift in her life’s ambitions during the season of Lent. The singular event was an Easter Vigil service she attended in the crypt of St. Peter’s Basilica. As she prepared to receive communion, she felt the strong and loving presence of God flow through her. The following Tuesday, she met with the parish priest at Santa Susanna, the traditional home for American Catholics in Rome, who gave her some advice as to how to proceed with this new calling. Within six months, she entered the convent of the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration in Cleveland, Ohio. She has been there ever since, with the name of Sister Mary Thomas (or, as we call her, SMT).
After several years of devotion to her new life of prayer, SMT returned to making art in the early 1970s. Since then, she has produced a steady stream of large oil paintings, most of them commissioned for Catholic parishes throughout the country. (The modest commission fees help the convent pay its bills.) During most of her time in the convent, she has maintained the demanding schedule of the order (they pray in one or two hour shifts throughout the day and night, in addition to several daily Divine services and masses) in addition to making art. For the past 15 years or so, her work at the order has focused more specifically on art. In this way, hers is a modern example of the ancient tradition of monastic or conventual art.
Her most recently completed project is also her masterwork: a 16’ x 30’ mural titled “Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament and the Communion of Saints.” She worked on the piece for ten years, with no assistance whatsoever. Because of the size of the canvas, the only place suitable was the floor of an upstairs chapel in the church, where the canvas was nailed to the floor. She thus did most of the work on her knees, in the traditional pose of prayer.
Whenever I talk to SMT, she tells me how lucky she feels to have found her true calling, and how happy she has been at the convent. She has not one ounce of regret, and her daily life of art and devotion continue to bring her joy and fulfillment.
As I did in a chapel talk a few years ago, I will leave you with this comforting thought: in downtown Cleveland, amidst the hustle and bustle of big city life, a small group of nuns are praying. They pray for the world, for the church, and for any particular prayer requests that are given to them. They don’t make a fuss, they don’t ask for money or recognition, they just pray. At any time of day or night, one of the sisters is praying over a list of people with needs. When she finishes, another sister will take her place and pray over that list again. And during the daylight hours, one of the sisters is bringing beautiful art into the world—not for money or fame, but for the glory of God. Perhaps, as Julian of Norwich so famously wrote, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”