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Unveiling a Devotion to Mary

Posted on: June 28, 2019 9:00 am
Tags: Nda, Education,

by Jodee McElfresh, SND Director of Mission Advancement

I attended the unveiling ceremony for the painting that now hangs in the recently renovated chapel at Notre Dame Academy. The painting, titled “Mary, Mother of the World,” was created by local artist Holly Schapker and commissioned by Dr. and Mr. Ceil and Ken Dorger. 

The ceremony took place on March 25, 2019, the Feast of the Annunciation. It was a dark and rainy Monday, but upon entering the auditorium filled with students, the day seemed to brighten.

On the stage was the painting covered in a dark blue cloth. Students waved to each other across the rows of chairs and hundreds of different conversations filled the room. There was a polite excitement and a sense of community. NDA president, Dr. Laura Koehl, explained to the students why they were gathered and welcomed Ms. Schapker to the podium to introduce her artwork. 

“I knew that being asked to do this painting was an honor and a privilege,” Ms. Schapker said. “Just like every other yes when it’s God’s will, I received so many blessings I couldn’t imagine. This brought me closer to Mary and helped me grow as an artist and as a person.”

And then, as Ms. Schapker and Dr. Koehl approached the painting to unveil it, students began stomping their feet on the ground in such a genuine teenage expression of excitement, as if we were cheering at a basketball game. Finally the cloth came off and a wave of gasps and students saying, “Oh my gosh!...Beautiful!...Oh woooow!” echoed throughout the room. The students gave a round of applause while Ms. Schapker humbly bowed on stage. The ceremony concluded with everyone praying the Hail Mary. 

After the high point of the unveiling, I wanted to ask Ms. Schapker about the painting and what led her to the final product of a Mary with tousled hair and wild animals in the background. (She later explained that Dr. Dorger told her that students like NDA because they don’t have to do their hair and that the wild animals represent the SND mission in Uganda.) I figured this would take just a few minutes knowing she had prepared a summary of the artwork. A simple Q&A did not occur. Rather, my interview with Ms. Schapker morphed into my witnessing a discussion of Marian influence between Ms. Schapker, Dr. Koehl, Dr. Dorger, and Sr. Mary Ethel Parrott. My notes and summary do not do the conversation justice. In fact, I encouraged the group to consider a podcast. Still, I would like to share a glimpse of what I heard and realized that day.

This meeting of the Marian minds showed me that these women do not idolize Mary, rather they have befriended her and welcomed her into their lives. And as Sr. Mary Ethel said at the unveiling, “We SNDs promote devotions to Mary and expressions of what is going on in our hearts, like this painting.”

Dr. Dorger: “Mary is the most often painted subject in the history of Western art and the impulse to make images predates the wheel and language. It goes way back in humankind.”

Sr. Mary Ethel (always melding her faith and science): “Artists are amazing. Even when scientists were in trouble for asserting the world was round, artists were painting Mary standing on a globe!”

Ms. Schapker:“That makes you understand the piercing power of art. The act of creating is an interaction with God the Creator.”

Dr. Dorger: “You sound like Elizabeth at the Visitation!”

Ms. Schapker: “Aha, I do think that sometimes! Who am I to have this flow through me? Every creative project presents the stage of feeling lost and I have learned to relinquish that control and let it go. I don’t have to be perfect. Going to God isn’t the most altruistic act—you don’t have to have a perfect heart, just take your troubles and worries to God. Still, there is always self-doubt for me. My sword is my negative thinking. I would compare myself to the greats like Michelangelo and I just shrank. So I laid this sword to Mary, this negative thinking of mine. In fact, my spiritual director said to me, ‘Where is the focus?’ I answered, ‘Me.’ He said, ‘So become the co-creator and shift the focus from my work to what God creates through me.’”

I did not expect that an early morning school assembly would lead to such simple, but profound advice that extends beyond artists and is something anyone could consider when having trouble getting started with or handing over something.

Ms. Schapker: “I like to think that most artwork is never finished, it just stops at interesting places and when I can say I’ve done my best. I refer to the Hebrew term Dienu frequently, which means whatever God gave me is enough. I no longer think of myself as an artist, but an evangel-artist. It doesn’t have to be perfect artwork as long as the message gets through.”

Dr. Dorger, whose granddaughter sat on her lap throughout, said, “Creating a painting is something akin to having a child. You add yourself, your values to shape it, but eventually you’ll put it out into the world and trust that you have done your best.”

Ms. Schapker: “We really are all one when we are looking at a painting and pondering over it. Today, I felt the power of the assembly. The students might not remember the words, but they’ll know how they felt.”

Dr. Koehl: “There was a special feeling today. Before the ceremony, students and teachers gathered in the chapel to pray a decade of the rosary. The number who joined was much larger than usual. The dedication to Mary is just magnified today.” 

Sr. Mary Ethel, who was chosen to do the May crowning when she was a student at NDA, said, “My dedication has grown so much since my time at NDA. We have a whole lifetime to grow into this understanding of Mary. That’s why I love paintings…because there’s always something else to it.”

Dr. Dorger: “Good art can withstand repeated contemplations.”

That is a sentence I have kept in mind ever since, replacing art with words such as stance and belief. 

When I later mentioned the Marian discussion to Sr. Marla Monahan, she added that the artwork is a physical reminder that NDA is dedicated to Mary, just like the other acts and expressions of devotion, such as the Miraculous Medal ceremony and May crowning. 

Sr. Marla told me two stories she recalls from her time as campus minister at NDA:

“After the Miraculous Medal ceremony one year, a freshman asked for a second medal that she could give to her sick grandma who lived in another state. The student wanted her grandma to have a reminder that they are spiritually connected.

Another student, whose mother had died, said in her essay for May crowning that Mary is in every facet of her life. Mary comes to all her games with her, to school with her, and she’s not embarrassed to have her mother with her.” 

Seeing and hearing that the SND devotion to Mary continues at NDA made me think about the examples I experience at work. Three come to mind:

(1)   Sisters call each other Mary in casual, mundane situations. “Mary, I saw that you have a package at the door.” What a compliment and what a reminder they give to each other to be Mary-like. At the recent Uganda Mission Pancake Breakfast, Sr. Mary Heleen Hehman approached my family. My four-year-old nephew looked up at her, a stranger, and said matter-of-fact, “Hi, Mary!” before returning to his pancakes. It could have been the veil, but she reminded him of the Mary he has learned about. She reminds me of Mary, too.

(2)   During a visit at the Notre Dame Urban Education Center I was amazed at a large painting of Mary hanging on the top floor. A volunteer explained that students painted her in honor of the late Sr. Mary Reina Arlinghaus, who led art lessons at the center. Of all the subjects that make them think of Sr. Reina, it is Mary. 

(3)  There is a constant underlying principle that, since the 1800s, thousands of SNDs have said YES! like Mary did. They have said/say yes to teaching, to becoming nurses, to serving abroad, to serving in the provincial house, to praying with someone in hospice care, to being a mother to children in foster care, to being a voice for the voiceless, and so much more.

Since the unveiling of Ms. Schapker’s “Mary, Mother of the World” painting, I have learned that an apparition of Mary must not be mystical (nor involve baked goods as so many modern reports seem to) because I know that I saw Mary in the NDA students that day and I see her in the sisters, my coworkers, and our partners every day.

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