A Sister Edith Pfau Evangelist
This article is reprinted from the summer 2012 issue of HOPE.
When I first took a job with the Sisters of Providence several years ago, one of my favorite pastimes was wandering around looking at everything on the walls. The juxtapositions are splendid: oil paintings from the 1880s next to sequin/yarn plastic canvas creations from 1980s, a printout of the Notre Dame football schedule next to the library crucifix, a decades-worn table near a hand-lettered calligraphic warning: “Please beware of splinters.”
I don’t remember which exact discovery first set me on the trail of Sister Edith Pfau (RIP), but I think it was a painting of the Holy Family hanging in Providence Hall that made me stop and look again with the thought, “Wow, that’s actually really good.” Not just hang-on-the-fridge good, but really-talented-artist good. Hang-in-a-museum good. It was signed, quite simply, “S. Edith.”
My curious nature won out, especially when I realized that Archives keeps a folder on every sister who passes through these hallowed walls and I could just look her up. By the time I spent a delightful afternoon poring through the folder of this extraordinary artist (whom the ever-helpful sisters in Archives informed me was Sister Edith Pfau), I knew I had stumbled upon a gem.
The basics were all there: Sister Edith was born Alberta Henrietta Pfau on July 1, 1915, in Jasper, Ind. She joined the Sisters of Providence in 1933 and professed her perpetual vows in 1941. She got a degree in art from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in 1941, then a master’s from Indiana State University in 1951, then a doctorate in art education from Ball State in 1971. She taught art all over the place, from high schools to colleges, as near as Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College and as far away as Providence College in Taiwan.
It is the stories between these facts that most intrigued me, the hints of a person underneath the persona. I found a snippet of a reflection she wrote where she recalled from her youth, “I always was attracted to faces. I find faces everywhere, even in scribbles on the wall.”
I learned she exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (yes, in the Met!) as part of an Exhibit of Sisters’ Manuscripts in 1947. I uncovered mention of award after award for her strong religious art that ranged from realistic oil painting portraiture to abstract sculptures in wood and polymer. I discovered a glorious sketchbook with swirling Christ figures, detailed studies of broaches and whimsical portraits of passing people. I saw examples of her warmth in flowing calligraphic letters to friends and colleagues.
No matter the medium, the art of Sister Edith is electric. Her use of curves and lines creates works that hum at the edges, where colors glow and stories are alive. I LOVE this stuff. I’ve become a bit of an Edith Pfau evangelist, actually, telling everyone I can all about her.
There are two works of hers in my office right now. In one, an oil painting from 1963, a woman sits comfortably in a chair with a book in her lap, quietly looking into the space around her. Everyone who walks by my door stops and pops their head in to say, “What is that? It’s beautiful!” I promptly tell them everything I know about Sister Edith. Probably more than they want to know, even, but I’m OK with that.
One of my favorite pieces of this story is the time Sister Joan Matthews stopped by and asked about the painting and, upon learning it was Sister Edith’s, said, “Oh! She taught us all calligraphy, you know.” Suddenly the light bulb went off: all of the flourished calligraphic signs around this place, the “Please take your recycling outside” and “Sing-a-long Tuesday at 3 pm” signs I find so enjoyable, are a direct legacy of Sister Edith Pfau. How splendid.
Had the Sisters of Providence not found Sister Edith’s story worth saving, I never would have known any of this. She’d be another name on a list and my life would lack the joy I’ve found from learning about her. What a blessing we have here! I hope in 50, 60, 70 years someone stumbles upon a folder in Archives and falls in love with Sister Sophia Chen’s paintings, or Sister Jody O’Neil’s liturgical art, or Sister Marianne McGriffin’s (RIP) iconography, or the work of another recent SP artist. The stories we keep become part of us — we are all richer for their telling.