Thinking About Religion
Volume 10 (2012)

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Crafting a Mission:
The Impact of Images Created in Religious Communities

Jennifer Kryszak
Duke University
jek24@duke.edu

Religious communities are often united around a shared mission that directs their ministries and vision of the world. While some rely on the spoken and written word to promulgate their mission within and through their ministries, other religious communities create images as a means to spread their mission. The Congregation of St. Joseph is one religious community which employs the use of art, in the form of paintings, sculpture, and mass produced religious images, to promote the mission of their community. This Roman Catholic women’s religious community maintains, “Our mission flows from the purpose for which the congregation exists: We live and work that all people may be united with God and with one another. It is rooted in the mission of Christ, the same mission which continually unfolds in His church.”[1] As part of this mission, the Congregation has committed itself to four “Generous Promises” including (1) attention to systemic change to address “the hungers of the world,” (2) ecological justice, (3) the global culture, (4) and leadership in the Congregation.[2] Thus, their mission and the areas to which they are committed necessarily draw the Congregation out of itself and into relation with others. Accordingly, it is important to assess whether the images created by the Congregation of St. Joseph successfully communicate their mission and potentially encourage others to participate in the mission of a community to which they do not belong.

What then is the impact of images created by the Congregation of St. Joseph? As scholars have argued, the things we pick up, observe, and use impact our identity and our understanding of the world. In Visual Piety, David Morgan asserts that religious images assist in the construction of the self. As Morgan maintains, “It is not the image itself, as an intrinsically meaningful entity, but the image as it is articulated within social practices that helps to assemble and secure the world of a believer.”[3] Through their use, religious images assist in shaping and confirming one’s religious vision of the world.[4] Thus the images created by artists in the Congregation of St. Joseph potentially expose others to the artist’s worldview. Nevertheless, the artist’s meaning is not static; each individual who interacts with the image can affirm, misconstrue, or re-interpret the artist’s intended meaning. Yet even as an individual engages the image, the artist’s meaning remains and can inform the individual about her vision of the world. Consequently, images created in a religious community contain the possibility to transmit their mission and evangelize those outside of the religious community. 

Drawing on both ethnographic research as well as the artwork produced by some of the sisters, I will consider whether the creation and use of art promotes the Congregation of St. Joseph’s mission as well as whether it potentially invites others into that mission of unity. After situating the Congregation historically, I will examine three areas to assess how the Congregation of St. Joseph employs art to promote their mission: the Ministry of the Arts, which is the business through which the sisters promote their art, the views of artists within the community, and the use of these images in their ministries.

The Congregation of St. Joseph recently formed in 2007 when seven different communities of the Sisters of St. Joseph joined together to better address the needs of their communities.[5] My ethnographic research has focused on four of these communities: LaGrange Park, Illinois; Tipton, Indiana; Nazareth, Michigan; and Wichita, Kansas.[6] Each of these communities arose to address specific needs in the areas where they were founded and have shifted their initial focus of education or healthcare to more diverse societal needs. Accordingly, the reconfiguration into the Congregation of St. Joseph enabled the sisters to both reassess and rearticulate their mission.[7]

As noted above, the Congregation pursues a mission for unity with God, others, and all of creation. While broad, this mission arises from the spirituality of the Sisters of St. Joseph, witnesses to the histories of the seven communities that formed the Congregation, and enables the sisters to be flexible in addressing the needs of those they serve. Even though the language of mission describes unity as something the sisters produce, they rather seek to recognize an inherent unity that exists and becomes more evident through their ministries. Following Roman Catholic teaching, the sisters affirm the Creator God in whom all of creation is united and attempt to manifest this fundamental unity through their ministries.  As they assert, “The spirituality of the Congregation of St. Joseph is one of growing love, and is an example of a spirituality of integration. Flowing from a deep desire for communion with God and every kind of neighbor, from whom we do not separate ourselves, we experience the prayer of Christ happening within us ‘That all may be one’.”[8] No matter whom they serve, the sisters seek to recognize and affirm the unity of all people with God and creation.  Thus, they minister to Catholics and non-Catholics and have expanded their ministries to address humanity’s relation to the whole of creation.

Significantly, the assessment of their mission has affirmed the arts as one area of ministry for the Congregation. While this expands a notion of ministry, the history of the Sisters of St. Joseph evidences this affirmation of art and creative work even in their earliest communities in Le Puy, France, in the seventeenth century.[9] Included in their work were lace- and ribbon-making, which were pursued both for the financial support of the sisters and to teach poor women how to earn a living through the work of their hands.[10] Frequently during interviews, sisters would comment on this heritage of lace-making, and lace from Le Puy, France is prominently displayed in each of their motherhouses.  This heritage informs the sisters’ response to the use of art and may well have enabled individual sisters to develop their artistic talents. Among the communities that formed the Congregation of St. Joseph, the community in LaGrange Park, Illinois stands out as a community which privileges the role of the artist and art in religious life. This is manifested in the Ministry of the Arts, which the sisters formed to produce and distribute artwork as a way to promote their mission.

In 1994, the Sisters of St. Joseph of LaGrange Park began the Ministry of the Arts (MOTA), which is organized as a business that produces and sells paintings, sculpture, cards, an annual calendar, and music. This ministry enables some of the sisters to work as full-time artists. Thus proceeds from MOTA serve to support the Congregation, its ministries, and its mission. As one of the Congregation’s sponsored ministries, MOTA seeks to promote creativity in others and to manifest unity with God and creation, which corresponds with the Congregation’s mission statement.[11] The vision for MOTA developed slowly as the sisters sought to discern how they would employ the arts as one of their ministries. The director of MOTA stressed that the products they create and promote manifest a commitment to the mission of the sisters. In developing MOTA, they differentiated it from other commercial businesses by consciously aligning products with the mission of unity.[12]

MOTA’s focus on unity with God and creation developed further as the Congregation was formed and the sisters reconsidered their mission. MOTA drew on the Generous Promises to promote the mission: products that are available through MOTA emphasize their Catholic identity, ecological and social justice, and a spirituality that seeks to connect a person to God, others, and all of creation.[13] By connecting specific products to the mission and the Generous Promises, they both teach their perspective customers about the mission of the Congregation as well as encourage them to participate in aspects of the mission.

While MOTA employs art produced by the sisters to promote the mission, we can question whether the artists themselves desire this impact or even recognize the impact their art could have on drawing others into the mission. Artists in the Congregation vary in how they perceive their own role and the impact of their art. Some artists directly connect their work to the mission of the Congregation. Caroline Benken, C.S.J. argues, “Art is integral to our mission as CSJs. Through it we manifest our oneness with all of creation. Gratefully, the prayerful act of creating and the art itself will enable us to know our God better in the world around us as well as among us and within us.”[14] Benken maintains that both creating and reflecting on art can draw one deeper into relationship with God and enable one to recognize the interdependence of creation.

"Solitude" by Pat Willems, CSJ - Courtesy of www.MinistryOfTheArts.orgNevertheless, not all of the artists in the Congregation or those associated with MOTA, are as explicit in their emphasis on the mission. For some of these women, the mission of the Congregation is part of who they are and would be present in what they did – even if they did not explicitly reference it in their artwork. This is evident in the work of Patricia Willems, C.S.J. Her watercolors portray landscapes or public places where people gather joyfully. Reflecting on her years as a teacher, Willems observed that you “teach more from who you are than what you say.”[15] Thus she often taught students about the Congregation’s focus on unity indirectly, which is also how her peaceful images direct an observer to the sense of unity with God and creation that seems to underscore Willem’s work. Because the mission is part of her own identity, it reappears in the works she creates even though her art does not explicitly make connections to the mission or the Generous Promises. Rather, by crafting images that speak to her own spirituality and her commitment to the mission, she offers images that can lead to a greater awareness of one’s connection to creation and others.

In contrast, Mary Southard, C.S.J. has been closely connected with MOTA and advocates the use of art in addressing ecological justice. Southard argues that art is both healing and revelatory and applies these qualities to different issues, especially ecological justice.[16] Through retreats that combine art and the universe story, Southard seeks to educate others into this understanding of creation because she maintains that a shift in consciousness takes place first through imagery.[17] Through these retreats, she encourages individuals to embrace creativity through a knowledge of the creativity of God and of the universe.[18] Altar by Mary Southard, CSJ, Congregation of St. Joseph Chapel, LaGrange Park, Illinois. Courtesy of  http://www.marysouthardart.org/ (Photo by Jennifer Kryszak)The altar Southard created for the LaGrange Park chapel manifests this connection of God and creation. In the center of the altar is a sculpture of Earth, which is gently surrounded by wooden arms which support the transparent altar table top which “rests” on Earth. This altar visually embodies God’s compassion for the world.[19] The creation of the altar hopes to shift how people understand the Eucharist and God’s relationship with humanity and the world.[20]  Thus Southard’s altar both participates in the original meaning and power of the altar as a place of sacrifice but also extends the viewer’s attention to the relationship of that sacrifice to the reality of it being lived out on Earth. Because of her personal commitment to the mission of the Congregation, her altar as well as her other artwork seeks to transform how people perceive the Eucharist, God, and creation.

In contrast to Southard’s strong focus on the ecological aspect of the mission, other artists are more hesitant to draw connections to the mission or outright question the validity of their position as an artist in a religious community. One sister hopes her artwork affects the consciousness of others, but she questions whether she could better serve the community and church by doing social justice work.[21] Nevertheless, she and other artists in the Congregation use art in retreats and courses as a way to challenge or inspire others to see the world and themselves differently.[22] As several of the sisters noted, creating objects and images or observing the work of an artist can teach a person about making decisions. How an image is made reflects the decisions and goals of the artist, which then possibly impacts the individual viewing or using the image.

Consequently, these images potentially affect how people perceive the world and draw them into the mission of the Congregation. Since the mission is broad and they are not confined to a single type of ministry or a narrow way of pursuing the mission, the sisters have the freedom to experiment with how best to promote unity and serve their neighbor. As a result, many of their ministries directly draw on the art created by the sisters as the logos for their ministries or as tools to educate those they serve. For example, they draw on images created by the sisters that address social justice issues in the hopes of altering the way people see each other and the world. This is especially evident in the representations of women.[23] "Woman Spirit Rising," by Mary Southard, CSJ - Courtesy of www.MinistryOfTheArts.orgOne image that several sisters mentioned is “Woman Spirit Rising” by Mary Southard, C.S.J. This painting visualizes the unity of women of different religious and ethnic backgrounds. One sister declared that the first time she saw this image she finally understood that women of other religions were her sisters. The image succeeded in extending the message of unity.

Images like “Woman Spirit Rising” travel both inside and outside of the Congregation. This image has been used in their calendar, on cards, and as a poster. It is used by various ministries and decorates the walls of retreat centers. People buy them for personal use, for gifts, for work spaces and classrooms. This interaction with art reflects an individual’s identity, choices, and goals. Thus individuals negotiate the meaning of works of art and can alter it from the artist’s original meaning.[24] Consequently as the sisters draw on this artwork in their ministries and as it travels outside of the Congregation, its meaning shifts. They cannot guarantee that others will see these images and recognize or agree with the message of unity.

Additionally, the understanding of unity in some of the artwork and products promoted by the Congregation remains questionable to the viewer. While their mission asserts unity with God and the Congregation remains committed to their role in the Roman Catholic Church, some of their products expand beyond Catholicism or even Christianity. Thus items like the calendar evidence a pluralism that definitely affirms the unity of all humanity; however, it does not fully reflect on how this unity should be lived out or how the presentation of others by a Catholic religious community could affect those in other areas of the world. The optimistic version of unity in both the artwork and reflections of the sisters does not fully address the complexities of the global culture.

Nevertheless, the art created and used by the Congregation of St. Joseph is intended to offer the Congregation’s mission to those outside of the community. The Ministry of the Arts enables the production of these images and their consumption both inside and outside of the Congregation. And while the artists might question their role in the Congregation and the purpose of their artwork in relation to the mission, their images often manifest the unity to which the Congregation is committed. People may choose not to recognize or embrace their mission of unity or aspects of the Generous Promises, but they still encounter a different way of perceiving one’s relation to the entirety of creation and to God. Whether these images affirm people’s previous views, subtly shift their understanding of a particular issue, or challenge the basis of their beliefs, they offer the possibility of committing oneself to or participating in the mission of the Congregation of St. Joseph.


 

Notes

[1] “Our Mission,” Congregation of St. Joseph, http://www.csjoseph.org/our_mission_vision.aspx (accessed 18 April 2011).

[2] Ibid.

[3] David Morgan, Visual Piety: A History and Theory of Popular Religious Images (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 207.

[4] For an analysis of how religious images and objects affects belief and practice, see Colleen McDannell, Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).

[5] The individual congregations voted between December 2005 and January 2006 to unite their communities into the Congregation of St. Joseph. The Vatican approved this formation on March 19, 2007. See “LaGrange Park, Illinois: Our History.” Congregation of St. Joseph, http://www.csjoseph.org/lagrange_illinois.aspx (accessed 11 October 2011). The communities that formed the Congregation of St. Joseph include the Sisters of St. Joseph of Wheeling, West Virginia, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cleveland, Ohio, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Nazareth, Michigan, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Tipton, Indiana, the Sisters of St. Joseph of LaGrange Park, Illinois, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Wichita, Kansas, and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Médaille.

[6] For my ethnographic research, I have conducted over 70 interviews with religious sisters, lay associates, and employees of the Congregation of St. Joseph. I have also observed some of the Congregation’s ministry activities and other events such as a profession of final vows. The names of individuals have been altered to protect their identity; however, the names of artists whose artwork is included in this essay are used with their permission.

[7] After the Second Vatican Council, religious communities reflected on the mission of the Church as well as the mission of their individual communities. Church documents, such as Gaudium et Spes, encouraged women religious to discern their role within and as a religious community. In “Women Missioned in a Technological Culture,” Anne Clifford, C.S.J. argues that the call for all Catholics to be involved in the mission of the Church challenged religious women to similarly assess how they were called to live out this mission within religious life. Anne Clifford, C.S.J., “Women Missioned in a Technological Culture,” in Claiming Our Truth: Reflections on Identity by United States Women Religious, ed. Nadine Foley, O.P. (Silver Spring, MD: Leadership Conference of Women Religious, 1988), 44.

[8] “Our Spirituality,” Congregation of St. Joseph, http://www.csjoseph.org/ourspirituality.aspx (accessed 4 June 2004). Since the earliest communities of the Sisters of St. Joseph in France, this spirituality has guided their ministries and presently directs the mission of the Congregation of St. Joseph.

[9] For a detailed recounting of the Sisters of St. Joseph’s founding in Le Puy, France, see Carol K. Coburn and Martha Smith, Spirited Lives: How Nuns Shaped Catholic Culture and American Life, 1836-1920 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 13-40.

[10] Marguerite Vacher, Nuns Without Cloister: Sisters of St. Joseph in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, trans. Patricia Byrne and the United States Federation of the Sisters of St. Joseph (New York: University Press of America, 2010), 261-262, 293-294. Vacher notes that making lace and ribbon were seen as a way to achieve “their own sanctification and the sanctification of the neighbor” (294).

[11] As one of the Congregation’s ministries, the vision statement for MOTA echoes the Congregation’s focus on unity. The MOTA vision statement asserts, “Through the arts we contemplate and express the unity and holiness of all creation. We affirm the power and prophecy of the arts and believe the arts to be an important ministry for hope and healing in a critical moment of world transformation. We encourage and affirm creativity in ourselves and all persons. Our mission of unity brings us closer in our time to a deeper awareness of our communion with God and all creation” (“MOTA’s Vision Statement,” Ministry of the Arts, http://www.minsitryofthearts.org  (accessed 11 October 2011)). Other ministries that are sponsored by the Congregation also draw on the language of unity within their vision statements.

[12] Christina Forte [pseudo.], interview by Jennifer Kryszak, tape recording, 20 June 2011, LaGrange Park, Illinois.

[13] While MOTA sells items produced outside of their community as well as items created by the sisters, this essay will focus on the work of the sisters. Other items are chosen to be sold through MOTA if the staff perceives the message of the product to be in line with the mission of the Congregation. Thus pictures, cards, and books that either visually or verbally promote issues to which the Congregation is committed as well as products such as candles produced by organizations seeking to support causes to which the sisters are committed, such as domestic violence victims, are sold through MOTA. In recent catalogs from MOTA, these products and artists are either described in such a way to make these connections to the mission obvious or are categorized according to the Generous Promises, which are part of the Congregation’s mission. Interviews with the sisters affirmed MOTA’s attempt at making these connections. Sisters who were not involved in MOTA often noted that particular images or products were sold because they manifest the mission of unity with God, others, and creation.

[14] Caroline Benken, C.S.J. “Wondering What it is that Artists Seek so Passionately,” Imagine One 3.2 (Fall/Winter 2011): 25.

[15] Patricia Willems, C.S.J., interview by author, tape recording, LaGrange Park, Illinois, 14 July 2011.

[16] Mary Southard, C.S.J., interview by author, tape recording, LaGrange Park, Illinois, 22 June 2011. Reflecting on her own life, Southard surmised, “…doing art is a healing process. And it is also very revelatory; it reveals what’s happening in one’s inner life.” Later in our conversation, Southard stated, “Our creative work is, number one it’s our way of expressing how we see the world and what is important to us. . . and it is also a way we can discover what is going on inside because our head is the last to know” (Ibid).

[17] Mary Southard, C.S.J., interview by author, tape recording, LaGrange Park, Illinois, 22 June 2011.

[18] As Southard observes, “Most of the work that I do is not teaching as such, but it is inviting people into this reality, which is the Universe, through poetry, through art, through some teaching in terms of telling the story, using Hubble images, my images. Because it is a whole new way of seeing” (Mary Southard, C.S.J., interview by author, tape recording, LaGrange Park, Illinois, 22 June 2011).

[19] She comments, the altar “is for me an expression of God’s love and care and compassion for our planet and our universe. . .” (Ibid).

[20] This is similar to other artists drawing on the image of Our Lady of Lourdes to employ the power of the image while at the same time subtly shifting its meaning. In “Traveling Images,” Eli Seland traces how the image of Our Lady of Lourdes takes on different meaning through the re-presentation of the image . She contends that art, even kitsch, holds meaning because it employs the image. Eli Heldaas Seland, “Traveling Images: Our Lady of Lourdes in Popular Piety and Art,” in Mind and Matter: Selected Papers of Nordik 2009 Conference for Art Historians, ed. Johanna Vakkari (Helsinki: Society of Art History, 2010), 38-39.

[21] She stated, “And I think sometimes I am torn too between what it is to be in a justice ministry that you are doing things, directly with the poor, directly with the illiterate, directly with people who are suffering” (Veronica Johnston, C.S.J. [pseudo], interview by author, tape recording, 27 July 2011).

[22] Johnston described people being awakened to the beauty of the world and to God around them after taking a course: “After you take a drawing class, you can’t walk the street without being bombarded with images that were always there but all of a sudden you are awake. That is the blessing and the curse for the artist” (Veronica Johnston, C.S.J. [pseudo], interview by author, tape recording, 27 July 2011).

[23] In Carnal Knowing, Margaret Miles contends that representations of women have not presented women’s subjectivity. Miles discusses the ways that images of women are employed to reinforce conceptions of women. She argues that these visual presentations as well as theological writings offer a socially constructed image of women with which women had to interact: “The social function of representations, then, is to stabilize assumptions and expectations relating to the objects or persons represented” (Margaret Miles, Carnal Knowing: Female Nakedness and Religious Meaning in the Christian West (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 10). See also Miles, 139-169.
[24] In Inside Culture, David Halle examines the types of art people include in their homes and the meaning that these cultural products hold for individuals. He argues that some images are incorporated into homes because people “adapted them into their own systems of meaning” (David Halle, Inside Culture: Art and Class in the American Home (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 194). Halle also questions what the role of culture/art is in maintaining systems of economic or political power. He argues that it is involved but also occurs at the individual level: “artistic meanings and choices are located in the particular lives and experiences of people, at every level in the class structure” (196).

 


Bibliography

  • Benken, Caroline, C.S.J. “Wondering What it is that Artists Seek so Passionately.” Imagine One 3.2 (Fall/Winter 2011): 24-25.
  • Clifford, Anne, C.S.J. “Women Missioned in a Technological Culture.” In Claiming Our Truth: Reflections on Identity by United States Women Religious, ed. Nadine Foley, O.P., 37-55.  Silver Spring, MD: Leadership Conference of Women Religious, 1988.
  • Coburn, Carol K.  and Martha Smith. Spirited Lives: How Nuns Shaped Catholic Culture and American Life, 1836-1920. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
  • Halle, David. Inside Culture: Art and Class in the American Home. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.
  • “LaGrange Park, Illinois: Our History.” Congregation of St. Joseph. http://www.csjoseph.org/lagrange_illinois.aspx (accessed 11 October 2011).
  • McDannell, Colleen. Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
  • Miles, Margaret. Carnal Knowing: Female Nakedness and Religious Meaning in the Christian West. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
  • “MOTA’s Vision Statement.” Ministry of the Arts. http://www.ministryofthearts.org (accessed 11 October 2011).
  • Morgan, David. Visual Piety: A History and Theory of Popular Religious Images. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
  •  “Our Mission.” Congregation of St. Joseph. http://www.csjoseph.org/our_mission_vision.aspx  (accessed 18 April 2011).
  • “Our Spirituality.” Congregation of St. Joseph. http://www.csjoseph.org/ourspirituality.aspx (accessed 4 June 2004).
  •  Seland, Eli Heldaas. “Traveling Images: Our Lady of Lourdes in Popular Piety and Art.” In Mind and Matter: Selected Papers of Nordik 2009 Conference for Art Historians, ed. Johanna Vakkari, 32-49. Helsinki: Society of Art History, 2010.
  • Vacher, Marguerite. Nuns Without Cloister: Sisters of St. Joseph in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Trans. Patricia Byrne and the United States Federation of the Sisters of St. Joseph. New York: University Press of America, 2010.

Interviews

  • Forte, Christina [pseudo]. Interview by author, 20 June 2011, LaGrange Park, Illinois. Field notes.
  • Johnston, Veronica, C.S.J. [pseudo]. Interview by author, 27 July 2011. Field notes.
  • Southard, Mary, C.S.J. Interview by author, 22 June 2011, LaGrange Park, Illinois. Field notes.
  • Willems, Patricia, C.S.J. Interview by author, 14 July 2011, LaGrange Park, Illinois. Field notes.

Images

  • All images are used with the artists' permission courtesy of The Ministry of the Arts 

 


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