Monday, July 21, 2014


In doing my new artists "research", I came across a letter St. John Paul II  wrote in 1999 to artists:

"To all who are passionately dedicated to the search for new “epiphanies” of beauty so that through their creative work as artists they may offer these as gifts to the world".

His letter, which should be read by all in the arts, no matter their genre, is magnificent  and long. It led me to ask what is art??? And why the Catholic Church, which was once the main source of Art and Literature in the Western World has produced so little of lasting value- or has it?

"The purpose of art is nothing less than the upliftment of the human spirit."  St. John Paul II

We need to consider that many of the great artists were considered "failures" in their day, but now we value their works highly.  We live in a vibrant time- so loud colors can wonderfully convey the artists message.  We need new images of our Faith, to express us here and now, but with reverence. I find that ethnic art so often does this for us, and why I use it often in my Blogs, to illustrate my message.

Our world has gotten smaller due to all the communication resources at hand, so we need to understand the visions of others.

Flannery O’Connor acknowledges the plight of the contemporary Catholic author, but I feel it applies to all forms of art. She says:

      I don’t believe that we shall have great religious fiction (art) until we have again that happy combination of  believing artist and believing society. Until that time, the novelist (artist) will have to do the best he can in travail with the world he has. He may find in the end that instead of reflecting the image at the heart of things, he has only reflected our broken condition and, through it, the face of the devil we are possessed by. This is a modest achievement, but perhaps a necessary one.     “Novelist and Believer,” Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose.

I have found many Catholic women in the USA whose art I feel worthy of entrance in to this Blog. I will start with one Catholic artist from the 20th Century.  She is one whose art we "grew up" with in our Novitiate, mainly due to her relationship to Dorothy Day. Ade did many of the early illustrations for the Catholic Worker, a newspaper edited by Dorothy. While I am not sure Ade ever visited our Mother Abbey, she certainly must have known our Mother Prisca (Dorothy Day was her “god-mother at M.P.’s clothing), and knew Jacques & Raissa Maritain (friends of The Abbey).
Ade with her Grandfather, Viscount Terlinden

was born Adélaide de Bethune, Baroness, in 1914 in Schaerbeek, Belgium. Her family were of the nobility but emigrated to New York after World War I in 1928. Her parents were interested in both the progressive movements of the day and the deep traditions of the Church.

Even at a young age Ade had a strong interest in the Church, liturgical art, and the Progressive movement. Ade was educated at Cathedral High School in New York and later, the National Academy of Design and Cooper Union.

She volunteered her illustrations to improve the quality of the Catholic Worker when she was a nineteen-year-old art student, impressed with the work of Dorothy Day. She continued this interest throughout her life, especially in providing housing for the elderly, particularly the poor.

Ade with Dorothy Day  Jacques Maritain & Peter  Maurin, 1934

In 1938 she moved to Newport, RI. In 1969, she founded the Church Community Housing Corporation in Newport County, Rhode Island, to design and build housing.

In 1954, Ade began writing about church architecture and how it could support and enhance the liturgy and  became involved in the Liturgical Movement. Peter Maurin (Co-founder of the Catholic Worker) encouraged her in public speaking and writing, persuading her to communicate both the ideals of the Catholic Worker and her own ideas.

The many articles Ade wrote on church design became very influential, some of them foreshadowing changes later brought about by the Second Vatican Council. She was seen as an authority on the subject, and over time people wanted her art and her ideas as well.  Ade would go on to provide liturgical design and consulting services for almost 300 churches up until the early 1990s.

From 1949 to 1962, she contributed to the Catholic children's comic book Treasure Chest of Fun and Fact, and a series called "Jesus Spoke in Parables"  where she illustrated the parables of Jesus with modern images.

 Her iconographic style was well-suited to comics, and she wanted children to actively engage with her art as a mode of religious self-instruction:  "For a small child all of life is full of signs and wonders. But in certain signs he comes to experience more closely something of God and of the Church, in terms he can grasp - in terms not of people or of words, but of images, smells, colors, lights, myths. His first impressions are lasting. The prime images he forms - in art or nature - must thus be such as can remain valid for life".

In 1991 she founded 'Star of the Sea' to renovate a former Carmelite convent into an intentional community and state of the art housing for the elderly, where she lived until her death in 2002.  She is buried at Portsmouth Abbey (Benedictine), Portsmouth, Rhode Island.

While Ade was an advocate of traditional iconography, the people in her drawings tend to be working class, ordinary people, dressed in the common clothes of the present-day. They perform everyday chores, and often are shown in what she called "acts of mercy," such as nursing the sick, feeding the hungry, and housing the homeless.  

Dorothy Day, in her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, wrote of Ade Bethune:
      Whenever I visited Ade I came away with a renewed zest for life. She has   such a sense of the sacramentality of life, the goodness of things, a sense that is translated in all her works whether it was illustrating a missal, making stained-glass windows or sewing, cooking or gardening.

Judith Stoughton: Proud Donkey of Schaerbeek: 
                       Ade Bethune, Catholic Worker Artist 1988

1 comment:

  1. This *might* be my favorite post yet. Thank you for the love and wisdom in this sharing, Mother.