New Castle sister ministers to Baltimore parish through her artwork

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Staff reporter

 

NEW CASTLE – Catholics may not recognize the ministry of Dominican Sister Mary Grace Thul at first glance, but it is very visible. The artist, who lives at the Caterina Benincasa Dominican Monastery on the grounds of Holy Spirit Parish in New Castle, spreads the message of faith through her work. Parishioners at St. Ambrose Church in Baltimore already have her art in their church, and soon they will be seeing much more.

Sister Mary Grace created several canvases for the parish, which is in the Park Heights section of Baltimore, a few blocks from Pimlico Raceway. The oil paintings depict several prominent church figures and will soon hang in the alcove of St. Ambrose.

Sister Mary Grace Thul and Capuchin Franciscan Father Paul Zaborowski roll up one of the panels the Dominican nun created for Father Zaborowski’s parish, St. Ambrose in Baltimore. (The Dialog/www.DonBlakePhotography.com)

The pastor, Capuchin Franciscan Father Paul Zaborowski, has been a fan of Sister Mary Grace’s art since their days in Washington, D.C., when he was pastor of the Shrine of the Sacred Heart and she was at the monastery there. He commissioned the work and arrived at the sisters’ gift shop and studio April 2 to see the finished products first-hand, and to take them back to Baltimore.

“I have one side chapel that’s dedicated to the Sacred Heart, and the walls right now are just plain stone,” he said. “And it sits kind of in the transept on the left, which is a kind of out-of-the-way space. I have always looked at someway enhancing that space for the people.

“What I like about Sister’s style is, first of all, it’s very intimate. I love how she does eyes. Her faces are always full of expression. Her eyes are always very wide.”

The panels, which need to be framed before they are hung in the church, reflect the Capuchin history and saints, and they also give a nod to the multi-ethnic composition of St. Ambrose. The parish has a large number of members from the island of Trinidad and Tobago, so Sister Mary Grace featured its patron, La Divina Pastora – Our Lady of the Divine Shepherd – and the Good Shepherd. There is Venerable Solanus Casey, a Capuchin friar who is known for his services for the sick in Detroit; Franciscan Sister Marianne Cope of Molokai, who cared for lepers in Hawaii; St. Padre Pio, a Capuchin Franciscan mystic who bore the stigmata; St. Katharine Drexel St. Francis of Assisi; St. Clare; and Jesus.

St. Ambrose is largely African-American, which is reflected in the paintings.

“He wanted Jesus to have Afro-American features and St. Francis, also,” Sister Mary Grace said.

The Dominican Sisters’ two cats, Tiny Tim and Gina, are in the paintings, as is Father Paul’s parrot, Suzy.

This panel features La Divina Pastora — Our Lady of the Divine Shepherd — the patron of the island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. St. Ambrose Parish in Baltimore has a number of members from there. (The Dialog/www.DonBlakePhotography.com)

“I told him I put my cats in and he said, ‘Well, then, put my parrot in.’ And it just fit on the Good Shepherd because (Father Paul) is the good shepherd of that parish,” Sister Mary Grace said.

Above La Divina Pastora is Mount St. Benedict, the original monastery of the Capuchins in Trinidad and Tobago.

“And then the island changed hands with government,” Father Paul explained. “It went from Spanish control to English control for a while, and the English weren’t too crazy about the Spanish friars, so we were expelled.”

The Benedictines took over, probably in the early 1800s, he said, and the monastery remains a “special place of devotion. It sits at the top of a hill, and many of the people go up on their knees. They immediately recognize that. It’s a piece of home for them.”

Sister Mary Grace said she began work on the panels in January, and one of the hardest parts was getting the measurements correct. As she would come up with drawings, she would email them to Father Paul, who would send back his suggestions. She would have to transfer her drawings to the canvas, making sure the size of each figure was correct.

“That was hard because I’m not good at math,” she joked.

She used oils rather than acrylic because she likes the slippery feel of oil paints, but that meant a longer drying time. In fact, the sisters had fans running for two days and nights in the studio before Father Paul’s arrival. She and the priest carefully rolled each of the panels, laying a sheet of plastic on some, before placing them in Father Paul’s SUV for the trip back to Baltimore.

“My whole desire is to increase the devotional life of the people. We’re bombarded with all these images in life. It’s good for us to have sacred images,” he said.

 

Sister Mary Grace also produces cards, wood carvings and other art that is available for purchase at the Benincasa Gift Shop, located at 6 Church Drive, New Castle. The shop is open from 1-5 p.m. on Saturdays and 9 a.m.-noon on Sundays. It also offers religious sacramental and other items in addition to the art. Proceeds benefit the Dominican Sisters.

Sister Mary Colomba Brienza said the arts have always played a big role in the Dominican order.

“As nuns, we don’t go out and teach or preach, but we have this place. That’s one way we live our mission,” she said. “Even the volunteers, we tell them, you partake of the mission we have, preaching through beautiful art and exposing it to the people.”

Those interested in volunteering at the gift shop should contact Sister Emmanuella at (302) 654-1206. Sister Mary Grace’s work is visible at her website, www.sistermarygrace.artspan.com.

The Caterina Benincasa Monastery was established several years ago at the invitation of Bishop Michael Saltarelli, Sister Mary Colomba said. Currently, there are three sisters and one novice there, although they hope to add one or more women soon. The community’s website is www.benincasaop.org.