Over the summer, Sister Marie Henderson, RSM, drove across the country from Michigan to bring something unusual and precious to campus. Finishing the final leg of the long trip, she parked her Chrysler PT Cruiser in front of Xavier Hall to make the delivery. Carefully wrapped in the back lay a nearly life-size bronze statue of Catherine McAuley, the founder of the Sisters of Mercy.
A small crowd gathered to welcome both the statue and Sr. Henderson, who is also the statue’s sculptor. Commissioned by Sister Kathleen Sullivan, RSM, the Vice President for Sponsorship and Mission Integration, the piece was purchased through a restricted fund donated by the Sisters of Mercy, and now stands near the entrance to Xavier Hall along the stone wall.
“The statue of Catherine McAuley is a wonderful way to honor the legacy of the Sisters of Mercy in the Centennial year of Saint Joseph’s College,” says Sr. Sullivan. “The college community loves the story of Catherine and the incredible work she accomplished in her lifetime. Through their commitment to Saint Joseph’s College, they share in the mission of reflecting mercy to the world.” The statue was officially blessed and dedicated with a ceremony involving alumni, trustees and friends of the college on September 24th, during Mercy Week.
For nearly 30 years, Henderson has sculpted McAuley’s likeness for other colleges and high schools across the country and the world. Now a professor at the University of Detroit Mercy, she was originally commissioned to do her first McAuley statue for the lobby of the all-girls Mercy High School where she taught art.
In learning about McAuley in order to do the sculpture, she found Catherine’s story to be gripping. A compassionate heiress who used her money to serve poor, sick and uneducated women and children in early 19th-century Dublin, McAuley believed everyone deserved dignity and respect. Sister Henderson developed a great admiration for the Irishwoman. “I really felt like I knew her pretty well,” she says. “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,” Sr. Henderson says.
But Henderson faced a big problem in creating her first sculpture: she didn’t know what McAuley looked like because no photographs, paintings or sketches existed. “All we have is a description of her, but that description is marvelously detailed – right down to her square fingertips,” Sr. Henderson says. Using that description, she depicted McAuley as she might have looked in 1828, three years before she formally founded the Sisters of Mercy. (Although McAuley didn’t intend to become a nun, she did it so the service work would continue.)
Since that first statue, Henderson has made dozens of bronze images of McAuley – three-quarters standing statues, busts, table sculptures and relief sculptures. She has also created a version of McAuley wearing a habit. In addition, she has made etched crystal sculptures and watercolors of her.
Today, Sr. 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 says.
by Charmaine Daniels