January 8, 2010

Religious Vocations Supplement

Carmelite sister in Terre Haute creates intricate religious icons

Carmelite Sister Mary Grace Melcher carefully works on a religious icon of Our Lady of Peace holding the Christ Child. Another icon of Mary and the infant Jesus that she created for the millennium has been published by Printery House at the Benedictine Conception Abbey in Conception, Mo. (Submitted photo)

Carmelite Sister Mary Grace Melcher carefully works on a religious icon of Our Lady of Peace holding the Christ Child. Another icon of Mary and the infant Jesus that she created for the millennium has been published by Printery House at the Benedictine Conception Abbey in Conception, Mo. (Submitted photo)

By Mary Ann Wyand

Countless hours of love, prayer and meticulous work go into the “writing” of an icon.

Carmelite Sister Mary Grace Melcher, a member of the Monastery of St. Joseph in Terre Haute, recently completed a large religious icon of Our Lady of Peace holding the Child Jesus as a gift for the new Carmel in Dongducheon, South Korea.

Sister Mary Grace said the prioress of that Carmelite community asked her to write—actually to paint—a Marian icon that would be a visual prayer for the reunification of North and South Korea.

As part of this ancient tradition, icons are “written” in the Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox styles.

The new Carmelite monastery is under construction on a former U.S. Army base just south of the demarcation line between North Korea, a communist country, and South Korea.

“The Carmel community in Seoul, South Korea, is making a foundation to Dongducheon on an old American military base,” Sister Mary Grace said. “When the Army vacated it, the property became available and the sisters bought part of it for their monastery, which is still under construction.”

The two Carmels are located on continents half a world apart, but the sisters have become friends.

A few years ago, the prioress of the Seoul community brought a nun to the Carmel in Terre Haute to learn English.

In 2006, Carmelite Sister Susanna Choi, a native of South Korea, was notified by U.S. immigration officials that there was a problem with her visa so she had to return to her homeland in the midst of her formation.

“The Seoul community took her in for 13 months until she could get that [immigration paperwork] rectified and re-enter our country,” Sister Mary Grace said. “As an act of thanksgiving, our community agreed to write this icon for their foundation in gratitude for their kindness in taking Sister Susanna into their community. We have done kindnesses for them, and they have done many kindnesses for us. We feel very close to them because we have two Korean sisters here—Sister Susanna and Sister Marianna [So].”

Sister Mary Grace studied iconography with Deacon Charles Rohrbacher, a master iconographer in Juneau, Alaska, by correspondence and during icon institutes at the Benedictine Mount Angel Abbey in St. Benedict, Ore.

“I had 10 weeks of basic drawing at Marygrove College in Detroit many years ago before I joined Carmel,” she said. “That’s my entire art training, but I have a talent that God gave me. I’m very good at rendering something very precisely in pencil or charcoal or whatever medium we need for our printing at the monastery. I’ve been doing artwork over the years for the community and for novenas.”

Sister Mary Grace said she learned to appreciate icons when she came to the Carmel of Terre Haute 28 years ago.

“Sister Mary Joseph [Triska] of our community, who was interested in icons, introduced me to them and I began to see their beauty,” she said. “I began to dabble with them, but I didn’t really know what I was doing. Before the year 2000, I decided that I wanted to write an icon for the millennium of Our Lady and the Christ Child. She is surrounded by Carmelite saints, and they are all saying, ‘Come, Lord Jesus.’ ”

That icon has been published by Printery House at the Benedictine Conception Abbey in Conception, Mo.

“I felt that if I had become a published iconographer, I needed to get some training,” Sister Mary Grace said. “I went to the institute a few times, and continued to work with Charles Rohrbacher, who has come to the monastery twice to work with me. … When we began to work on this icon of Our Lady of Peace, I sent drawings to him and he sent a corrected drawing. I used his work as a reference to make my final drawing. I wouldn’t have been able to do what I did without his help.”

Writing an icon is a painstaking process, she said, because it is very precise and time-consuming work.

“I started working on the drawing a year before I ever started the icon,” Sister Mary Grace said. “My time is limited, and at best I get a day a week that I can actually work on icons. When there are community demands, I don’t even get that much time so progress is really slow. That’s why it was so important to me when Mother [Anne Brackmann, the prioress] said, ‘I’m going to give you a month to do nothing but work on that icon.’ Otherwise, it would have taken years.

“Icons are not artistic in the ordinary sense of the word where you can just express yourself,” she said. “They’re made of obedience and carefulness because you’re following a tradition, not only in the subject matter of the icon, but in the execution of the icon.

“The paint is handled in a certain way, and it takes a long time because there are many transparent layers in the Russian tradition,” Sister Mary Grace said. “The Greek tradition is more opaque in the way it is painted, but I follow the Russian pattern. The whole process is very precise—the gilding, working with gold leaf, the layering techniques and the inscriptions. When you work with an icon, you put down your dark colors first very transparently and then bring out the lights by highlighting. You’re working in reverse and bringing light out of darkness.”

Writing icons is “very contemplative and deep theologically,” she said, “not only in the subject matter and how it’s done according to the tradition, but also in the artistic process. It’s very prayerful, very symbolic. Symbols point to deeper reality so the iconographer is always working in the symbolic world, which is an open door to the world of pure faith.”

Iconographers begin their extremely detailed work with prayers for the grace to render an icon well, she said, as well as prayers for the people who will venerate it.

“I think many icons are made by monks and nuns and other people who live a deep life of prayer because the work of the icon is under-girded by the life of prayer,” Sister Mary Grace said. “It’s only in an atmosphere of prayer that a person can produce an icon. … At least in my own experience, I find myself migrating to a very prayerful but wordless level of concentration on this holy work. I approach my icons with fear and trembling and humility. I have a deep need for God. I know that I need God’s help. … I always consider each one of my icons to be a real miracle.”

(For more information about the Carmelite sisters of the Monastery of St. Joseph in Terre Haute, log on to their Web site at www.heartsawake.org.)

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