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Portraits of mercy.

Our culture cheers the merciless, those whose knife blade flashes swift and sharp. Newspaper headlines scream, "No mercy!" Today, learning the ways of the large-hearted seems counter-cultural, almost subversive.

Yet who has contributed more to human happiness: the warriors who slaughtered or the nurses who saved lives The quality of mercy sings across the centuries and continues to inspire and speak to the longing of the human heart.

The artist Brother Michael O'Neill McGrath, O.S.F.S. and the students and faculty of Merion Mercy Academy have given mercy a human face, 16 faces to be precise. Last year McGrath was commissioned by the school, a college preparatory school sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy near Philadelphia, to paint 14 murals for its new chapel.

The artist designed the "Women of Mercy" panels, then came to the school to work with the students in painting 16 women to represent the 14 corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

The whole high school got involved--faculty members and students, theologians and artists. The young women studied the inspiring women in their theology classes and painted them in art.

Their collaboration, now installed on the walls of the second-floor chapel, has created a sisterhood of merciful mamas to watch over growing girls. As students fret over SAT scores, eating disorders, algebra, soccer, a friend's addiction, aging grandparents, or prom dates, the presence of these women reminds them of even larger issues, like how they're sharpening their skills to fight injustice or why God put them on the planet.

There's nothing like a heroic woman role model to put teenage--or midlife--anxiety into perspective. "It's about more than you, darlin'," she whispers to those trapped in narrowness or self-pity.

The women on the chapel walls include heroines from the Old and New testaments, saints from church history, American saints, and exemplary women from contemporary times. Sarah, Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Veronica join Catherine of Siena, Teresa Avila, and Therese of Lisieux. Catherine McAuley, Elizabeth Ann Seton, Kateri Tekakwitha, Frances Cabrini, and Katharine Drexel keep company with Josephine Bakhita, Thea Bowman, Dorothy Day, and Mother Teresa.

Merion Mercy student Caitlin Rice admits she and others were nervous and skeptical at the beginning of the project. They weren't sure they could paint and didn't want to "mess up" the work of art. "But I got involved by doing the research on Native American designs, which were incorporated in Kateri Tekakwitha's stole," says Rice.

McGrath's positive attitude was infectious as he encouraged young artists to create. Sister Marianne Hieb, R.S.M., an artist and spiritual director who participated in the project, prayed with the seniors as they painted the backgrounds, laying the groundwork for their legacy to the school.

"I helped during study halls, free periods, and lunch," says May Limbach. "We could never make a mistake. Everything, every stroke of paint, every swirl of gesso, was beautiful to Brother Mickey. We all contributed to this amazing project."

Another student artist, Kerry McCarthy, was particularly thrilled that she got to paint the dress and hair of her favorite saint, Therese of Lisieux. The Little Flower was her Confirmation saint.

Several of the saints are pictured in youth, about the ages of these girls. Their portraits demonstrate McGrath's goal to "banish 'Ken and Barbie in Bible clothes' from religious art."

Jessica Mercer graduated from Merion Mercy this summer and now attends a Jesuit university nearby. But she says she will not forget the "women we want to emulate. The Holy Spirit symbolized on each portrait [with a small flame and a spiral] lives within us."

One suspects that when the young artists are as old as the biblical Sarah they painted, they'll bring their great-grandchildren to see their work and tell them about the amazing women they got to know through this project. "Years from now," says Rice, "I can proudly say that I painted the face of Veronica, who wiped the face of Jesus!"

Many of the girls were so enthusiastic they hated to see the project end, but they also came to understand that in many ways their project is never finished. The work of mercy is simply transferred from canvas to their own lives. Privileged to play a part in the grand design, one of the students could be the next Dorothy Day.

The young artists have created something enduring and beautiful that opens the door to the sacred. They can hear these merciful women urge them on to "go and do likewise. Become like us."

No one goes to an art museum to find beauty only within its walls. People visiting museums become sensitized to beauty there, then find it everywhere. So, too, high school students and visitors meeting mercy in these portraits will seek mercy everywhere. Its quality emerges in the people they encounter, the chances they have to give and receive mercy.

The project is also a potent reminder of women's contributions in a church and society that still ignore feminine gifts. These girls will never doubt the power of a committed female. Student Katelyn Moscony observes that "sometimes it seems like the female role in Christian history is diminished, but it was reassuring to be reminded of all these amazing women and their accomplishments."

All the merciful deeds of these women added together might give the merest glimpse into the ocean of God's mercy. A phrase from Thomas Merton captures the eternal echo within the space these women have created: "Mercy within mercy within mercy...."


The 14 paintings of holy and inspiring women in the chapel of Merion Mercy Academy in Merion Station, Pennsylvania represent the seven corporal works of mercy (left) and the seven spiritual works of mercy (right).


Feed the hungry--represented by Thea Bowman (1937-1990), pioneer in African American spirituality; and Dorothy Day (1897-1980), cofounder of the Catholic Worker movement.

Give drink to the thirsty--represented by St. Frances Cabrini (1850-1917), founder of the Institute of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart and first canonized U.S. saint; and St. Katharine Drexel (1858-1955), founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.

Clothe the naked--represented by Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997), founder of the Missionaries of Charity.

Shelter the homeless--represented by the Old Testament matriarch Sarah, wife of Abraham.

Visit the sick--represented by Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680), "Lily of the Mohawks," the first Native American proposed for canonization.

Visit the imprisoned--represented by St. Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897), the "Little Flower," French Carmelite nun, and Doctor of the church.

Bury the dead--represented by St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), Italian mystic and Doctor of the church.


Instruct the ignorant--represented by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774-1821), founder of the Sisters of Charity.

Counsel the doubtful represented by Mother Catherine McAuley (1778-1841), the Irish founder of the Sisters of Mercy.

Admonish the sinner--represented by St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), Spanish mystic and Doctor of the church.

Bear wrongs patiently--represented by Mary Magdalene, "apostle to the apostles" and first witness of the Resurrection.

Forgive injuries--represented by St. Josephine Bakhita (1868-1947), Sudanese ex-slave and Canossian Sister in Italy.

Comfort the sorrowful--represented by Veronica, who wiped the face of Jesus.

Pray for the living and the dead--represented by Mary, Mother of Mercy.


KATHY COFFEY and BROTHER MICHAEL O'NEILL MCGRATH's book Women of Mercy about the Merion Mercy Academy project was published by Orbis Books in 2005.
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Title Annotation:Christan women saints
Author:Coffey, Kathy
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2005
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