January 25, 2005

Mercy sister specializes in statues of foundress

Institutions across the United States and Canada sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy have turned to a Detroit member of their congregation for sculptures of their foundress, Catherine McAuley. It all started 21 years ago - and two years before Marie Henderson entered the local Mercy community. As an art teacher at Mercy High School in the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills, she was asked to do a sculpture of McAuley for a lobby area at the all-girls school.

In learning about McAuley in order to do the sculpture, Sister Henderson developed a great admiration for the Irishwoman who was moved by compassion to gather other women together to serve the poor in early 19th-century Dublin. “I really felt like I knew her pretty well. We have a lot of the (letters and other writings) of Catherine McAuley, and when you read about her you know she was both a fun-loving person and very spiritual,” Sister Henderson, 55, told The Michigan Catholic, newspaper of the Detroit Archdiocese.

She said McAuley was greatly influenced by the Quaker tradition, having worked as caregiver for a Quaker woman during her decline and final illness. In fact, she said, it was the money that woman’s widowed husband left her that allowed McAuley to start the institution that would later become the Sisters of Mercy. Sister Henderson said she has been inspired by McAuley’s message that people deserve “dignity and respect, regardless of their economic status, and of care for the poor, in particular women and children.” “She always stressed that you have to maintain the dignity of the human person when working with the poor - never make anyone feel as if they were receiving a handout,” Sister Henderson added. One problem that presented itself was the very basic one of what McAuley looked like.

Photography was just getting started when she died in 1841, and there are no known paintings or sketches from life. “All we have is a description of her, but that description is marvelously detailed — right down to her square fingertips,” Sister Henderson said. Using that description, she depicted McAuley as she might have looked in 1828, three years before she formally founded the Sisters of Mercy. “She really didn’t want to become a Sister, but she did it so the work would continue. She went to the Presentation Sisters to serve her novitiate, and founded the Sisters of Mercy in 1831,” Sister Henderson said.

A bronze casting of Sister Henderson’s 1983 sculpture was made in 1987. Since, then Sister Henderson has made 70 more bronze images of McAuley — three-quarters standing statues, busts, table sculptures and relief sculptures. She has also done a version of McAuley wearing a habit. In addition, she has done etched crystal sculptures and watercolors of the foundress.

Today, Sister Henderson continues to get commissions from Mercy Sisters’ schools and hospitals. “With fewer and fewer Sisters, I think it’s important to have an image that stands there and tells what the Sisters are all about,” she said. Besides McAuley, she has sculpted Frances Warde, the first Mercy Sister to come to the United States, and she has done other subjects as well. Her bronze relief of St. Thomas More hangs outside the St. Thomas More Chapel in the Michigan Catholic Conference building in Lansing. And for St. Joseph Mercy Hospital-Macomb in Clinton Township, she has done a large sculptural piece that includes Warde, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, Nelson Mandela and Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu. And she is open to receiving commissions to do other saints or worthy historical figures. “I would like to get a commission to do a St. Joseph or a St. Joan of Arc,” Sister Henderson said, sitting in her studio at the McAuley Center in Farmington Hills.

Being a member of the Sisters of Mercy has made a real difference in the development of her artistic career, she said: “The support I’ve received from other women with a similar view about how the world could be, and should be, has been wonderful.” Noting that the order has accommodated her need to care for her mother and a brother who is a stroke victim, she added, “If I weren’t part of a religious community, this would have been very difficult.”

(Catholic News Service, from an article by Robert Delaney in The Michigan Catholic)

(For more about Sister Marie Henderson's sculptures of Catherine McAuley, visit www.mcauleyimages.com)

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