Sister Marie Pierre Semler, MM
Born: March 23, 1901
Entered: April 30, 1925
Died: October 18, 1993
As we gather here today for the Liturgy of the Resurrection, we take this graced opportunity to contemplate on a life that took 92 years of God’s patient and loving, artistic care to complete. Story is told of Sr. Marie Pierre who discovered in a piece of carving from a rather straight apple root the figure of a young girl carrying a sack of grain on her head and only after 17 years did she name it ‘Sharing Wheat’ as sharing Christ. In the same manner, today’s Liturgy culminates for us the final naming and claiming of a life that praised God wholeheartedly through the medium of art and poetry.
For more than 60 years, Sr. Marie Pierre Semler used her aesthetic sense, “religious fervor and poetic enthusiasm” in the service of mission. More than a year ago, she was transferred to our Nursing Home because of “age and infirmity”. Like nature which she had strongly and deeply affirmed in art, she suffered slow deterioration with little pain for months until her death on October 18, 1993.
Bertha Josephine Semler was born on March 23, 1901 to Anthony Semler and Lena Baum in Chili, Monroe County, New York. Her father was an agriculturist who sailed from Hamburg and settled on a farm in Chili. She had 2 brothers, Anthony and Simon; and 2 sisters, Sister Mary Laurentina, a Sister of St. Joseph, and Mrs. Mary Wehner, now all deceased.
Bertha had a natural talent for portrait sketching which she enjoyed doing after grammar school. Later, when the family moved to Rochester, she earned a Certificate in Drawing by attending evening courses while working as housekeeper and assistant office clerk. From reading Catholic literature, she became interested in foreign missions and entered Maryknoll in 1925 from Sts. Peter and Paul Parish. On the third day after entrance, she was asked to go to Rosary House, one of the 7 buildings in the Sisters’ complex to work with a Sister in the Art Department. In 1927, she made her First Profession and her Finals in 1930.
“For the next 8 years,” she recalled, “my work was the illustration of 2 Maryknoll magazines and any other projects that needed to be done in both the Seminary and Convent.” It was around this time in 1928, when James Anthony Walsh came to Rosary House Art Department to consult Sr. Marie Pierre about an offer made by a Catholic lady, Wilhelmine Coolbaugh, to pay whatever the cost of procuring a sculpture of Our Lady under the title of Our Lady of Maryknoll, but only if the work be that of a Maryknoll Sister. “Would she, Sr. Marie Pierre, do it?” She could not fulfill the request. The next request was, “Could she give us the idea for it? Even a rough sketch?” Yes, she would do it. The statue was later modeled by Sidney Woollett of Boston and sculptured by Giacomo Mussner of Ortisei, Italy. The statue arrived in New York in September, 1930 and the Oriental kiosk, where it stands on the Seminary grounds today, was completed in time for the Departure Ceremony in 1932.
Later, the demands for the magazine illustrations grew to proportions far too great for her that only the “Convent art needs” became Sr. Marie Pierre’s sole responsibility. She produced drawings and paintings for CHI-RHO Arts whose sales became a source of income for our Sisters for years. For many decades, she devoted her life to creative, prolific and untiring production of cards, plaques and statues, and design of Mass vestments, lamp shades and furniture. She painted several Madonnas, the “Holy Family” and sculptured Crib sets, the ‘Magnificat”, “Song to our God, and innumerable other art pieces, each one of which was an original creation and the fruit of deep contemplation. Sr. Therese Grondin recalls that Sr. Marie Pierre was a missioner, teaching and sharing the art techniques with Sisters like herself who in turn taught others to reproduce the Crib set in China and Taiwan.
Sr. Marie Pierre made a notable contribution to Catholic art in the United States. In the ‘40s, she began the cast stone sculpture and worked for many years making statuary using molds made from her original designs. In 1943, Sr. Marie Pierre designed and produced the outdoor Stations of the Cross on the Motherhouse grounds to portray the Passion of Christ through hands carved in wood. This was acclaimed as one of the 3 outstanding works of art in the United States by Katherine Burton, a well-known author. Sr. Marie Pierre’s works also received favorable comments from a noted American mural painter, Augustus Vincent Tack who wrote:
“Her drawings are done with great simplicity, inspired by religious fervor and poetic enthusiasm. They not only include spiritual emotion… They are very appealing. In their innocence, they express great strength, the result of study, of observation and of feeling.”
In late 1955, she was asked to design the memorial for Mother Mary Joseph’s grave. She shared the future design with Mother Columba describing the art she had in mind for the memorial. “Its head would rest against the wood reaching for the stream flowing from the cross. To me, it seems a good representation of the poor, suffering, exhausted and thirsting people for whom we suffer and rejoice to bring the ‘good tidings’.” Later, she made a 39-inch model for the sculptors who carved in stone the 13-foot statue of the “Mother of the Thorn-Crowned” which overlooks our cemetery and graces Mother Mary Joseph’s grave.
Sr. Marie Pierre started a new art form called the woodland sculpture in 1958. This art form was made from branches, some carved. Other pieces are roots naturally formed to represent various subjects. Still others are made of stone or clay. Two inspiring pieces are “The Prophetess” and the ‘Flight to Egypt”. Some 50 pieces of this woodland sculpture went on exhibit and sale in White Plains in the ‘70s.
Along with her art, Sr. Marie Pierre wrote poetry. In 1981, she was invited to have one of her poems published in the Great Treasury of World Poems. Allow me to share it with you. It is entitled: “Wings”; it is short but strong, deep and pithy.
Wings are things
Things like the wind
that lift and carry
Even the wary.
Are powerful things
Good and evil
God and weevil.
We-evil and blind
No invisibility find.
Recognized for her poetry, she received the Golden Poet Award for 1985 and 1986 honoring her for her “outstanding contribution to poetry” and her “unique and sensitive qualities”.
Recently, in 1990, Tony Schumacher, Pastor of the Holy Mother of Consolation Church, in Oregon, wrote to Luise Ahrens to thank her for the beautiful piece of art titled “Consolation”, one of Sr. Pierre’s art pieces. He wrote:
“‘Consolation’ invites meditation. It is an edifying commentary on compassion, a profound study of gentleness mixed with strength, of tender love, of transformed sadness, and of acceptance that is deeper than resignation. It embodies some of the qualities embedded in the ideals of Maryknoll and its mission to the world. As a Church with Consolation in its title, we feel privileged – and it is also appropriate – that we care, called on to share in this mission in a very special way.”
This year the Central Governing Board has asked Sr. Joanna Chan to coordinate the printing of a book which will combine Sr. Marie Pierre’s art and poetry using her woodland sculpture and her written meditations.
In personally reflecting on her life, I am reminded of the insights offered by John Dunne in his book, The Way of all the Earth, wherein he speaks of the invitation to pass-over to another religion, culture or another person’s life and to return to one’s own after having gained insights and learning from the other. In the past few days, I, too, have experienced a passing-over to Sr. Marie Pierre’s life and bringing back of the insights gained in the process.
Her life was fully dedicated to the invisible, powerful things. She was singlehearted; she was patient and waited for nature and people to unfold their meaning. She was a contemplative who cultivated life in people, in our own Sisters, and in the art pieces that she claimed and named. She enjoyed playing with Sr. Benedicta Deichelbohrer’s bird, Nicky, for hours at a time. Through her woodland sculpture she integrated prayer and nature offering us a spirituality. Her whole life was a prayer and so is nature’s. Once she said,
“Nature’s work is prayer. It continually rises above the earth and reaches upward. Nature’s work is promoting, preserving and healing life. It is ever striving to uplift the world by making it beautiful. By so doing, it serves its Creator. Nature serves us in ever aiding us to renew life within ourselves, to promote beauty in every living thing, to pray to our Creator as nature prays.”
As part of nature, Sr. Marie Pierre is God’s artwork. Her life and her art are food for our contemplation.
We welcome Father Joseph Veneroso, MM a Maryknoll friend and brother, who is also Editor of the Maryknoll Magazine. Joe will lead us in the celebration of the Liturgy. Let us begin this Liturgy and thank God for the gift that is Sr. Marie Pierre and for the insights we have gained from her life and art that we, in turn, will share with others.