The Impact of Images Created in Religious Communities
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.”
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.
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.”
Through their use, religious images assist in shaping and confirming
one’s religious vision of the world.
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.
My ethnographic research has focused on four of these communities:
LaGrange Park, Illinois; Tipton, Indiana; Nazareth, Michigan; and
Wichita, Kansas. 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.
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’.” 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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.”
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.
Nevertheless, 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.” 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.
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. Through these
retreats, she encourages individuals to embrace creativity through a
knowledge of the creativity of God and of the universe.
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.
The creation of the altar hopes to shift how people understand the
Eucharist and God’s relationship with humanity and the world.
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.
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.
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
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.
One 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
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
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.
David Morgan, Visual Piety: A History and Theory of Popular
Religious Images (Berkeley: University of California Press,
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).
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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
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.
Christina Forte [pseudo.], interview by Jennifer Kryszak, tape
recording, 20 June 2011, LaGrange Park, Illinois.
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.
Caroline Benken, C.S.J. “Wondering What it is that Artists Seek so
Passionately,” Imagine One 3.2 (Fall/Winter 2011): 25.
Patricia Willems, C.S.J., interview by author, tape recording,
LaGrange Park, Illinois, 14 July 2011.
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).
Mary Southard, C.S.J., interview by author, tape recording, LaGrange
Park, Illinois, 22 June 2011.
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).
She comments, the altar “is for me an expression of God’s love and
care and compassion for our planet and our universe. . .” (Ibid).
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.
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).
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
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.
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).
- 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
- 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.
(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
- “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.
- 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.