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Posted April 08, 2011:
The First Artists of Madonna House

by Susanne Stubbs.

Joan Bryant and I came to Madonna House at about the same time. She went away and did some teaching and then came back and became an applicant. I think it is of interest to see how our foundress, Catherine Doherty, saw Joan and a few other women who came about that time.

Catherine had a broad vision of the apostolate. In the beginning she had worked with the poor, the materially poor; but when she came to Combermere, then things really took off and the magnitude of her vision was materialized piece by piece.

So by 1966, the year we came, Madonna House had a functioning farm and a good library, and many of the work departments had been set up. The basics were in order, and Catherine, now in her seventies, was able to put the frosting on the cake, so to speak.

These last years of her life, it was her joy to work on setting up the handicraft department and the gift shop. But she wasn’t only thinking of crafts, but also of intellectuals coming here and fine artists. This was also the time she started to talk about our reaching out to the Eastern Rites of the Church.

She was talking about these things all the time, and eventually she wrote about them. It was an exciting time for her and an exciting time for the whole apostolate.

This is the setting into which little Joan Bryant and little Susanne walked into Madonna House.

When I was a summer guest, some posters were needed for the gift shop, and I could trace and draw and put together a nice poster. In Catherine’s mind, that made me an artist!

Joan was also here, and Joan had graduated from the Ontario College of Art and was really an artist. "Oh, good", said Catherine, "the artists are coming."

Then Janet Lukos came. She had been an elementary school teacher. She was very clever with children and had a lot of training in certain kinds of arts and crafts. She had never done anything like pottery but here, later, she did pottery.

Then Rochelle Greenwood arrived, who was a graduate in fine arts from the College of St. Benedict in the U.S.A.

Well, Catherine thought this was God’s answer to her dream. She used to talk about dreaming dreams in God and one of the dreams was to have artists. So we were a fulfillment of her dream!

Now you have to realize—I’m laughing just thinking about it—we were so young, and we didn’t know what was going on.

Imagine being a working guest at Madonna House, a young person who has been here just a few months, and the foundress of the place, the director, taps you on the shoulder and says, "God has sent you. You are the fulfillment of a dream."

There is a transcript of a tape called, "Talk to Artists, April 1, 1968." It was made in a little cottage called St. Teresa’s up on Carmel Hill the Monday of Passion Week 1968.

I had made my first promises in ’67, and Joan and Rochelle were still guests. Janet made first promises in ’68.

Catherine was supposedly resting up on Carmel Hill. One night she invited us up for tea, and then as Fr. Brière used to say, "out of her mouth came a Niagara of words" about the beauty of the Madonna House artists.

I will never forget this night. We sat there dumbfounded, listening. We were confused in one way, and in another way we knew that she was really saying something.

But we were so young. I remember walking home, down Carmel Hill, saying "What has she just given us? And what are we going to do with it?"

Because when Catherine talked, she’d say, "Now remember this. This is for the salvation of the world." What are we going to do?!

Well, little did we know that Catherine was smarter than we were, because the next morning she put on a tape recorder, and she dictated what she’d said the night before.

Donna Surprenant, another Madonna House artist who came later, edited it into a wonderful little booklet called, "The Vision on the Mountain," which is now on sale through MH Publications. It’s very beautiful.

In the beginning of the original tape, she talked about how we were with her the night before.

She said, "I must admit that I am personally quite lost in wonderment when I look at these ‘artists’.[The typist put ‘artists’ in quotes]. Young, somewhat bewildered, and hence without the vision. Perhaps they should read some of my letters."

So in this wonderful document—and it is wonderful—she talks about the marks of a Madonna House artist. I’ll just read you one little part:

"The artists of Madonna House must be humble people; people of prayer. For they are not going to create; God is going to create through them. They are also the gospel people. I should say the three or four people of the Gospel to whom various talents have been given.

"They have to put these talents to work so that when the Master comes he finds them increased. They have to become fruitful, incarnated. They sing the song of the Lord. They have doubled, trebled and quadrupled, or maybe even been returned to the Lord a hundredfold.

"The goal of the artist in Madonna House is always the same: the Little Mandate, the forming of a community of love, for that is what they are really going to express. Love. Capital ‘L.’

"Love is a person. Love is beauty caught by each one according to his understanding of it and of course the understanding will be the same in a sense, because they will see it through Christ, who is humility, truth, beauty, the way, word.

But each will see it as a facet of a diamond and God will be pleased. For many facets bring forth the beauty of the diamond."

That’s just one little part, but it gives you the tenor of this document.

Now, this was all a grand vision, but the first thing a Madonna House artist had to do was in Catherine’s words, "go through a novitiate," and the novitiate in those years for us was restoring junk.

Catherine had barns full of junk, saved for our arrival! No wonder she was pleased to see us come!

In those days cigars came in boxes, sometimes in fairly decent quality wood boxes. Catherine had saved lots of them, and she said, "You decorate them; we can sell them for the missions."

So, my first year in Madonna House I painted cigar boxes. The foolishness of God! I thought it was fun, but Joan Bryant found it very penitential. She was trained in fine art, painting, and drawing, and she was put to decorate cigar boxes!

After about five years of that, she was allowed to really start painting and drawing. And then—but not too long after—Catherine sent Joan to the Holy Land and then France to study iconography. She became our first iconographer.

Joan had a dry and sometimes "wicked" sense of humor. The fun we had together lightened our days. The memories of our youth have a special quality about them, and Joan’s place in mine is precious to me.

 

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