Notre Dame Legends and Lore / by Dorothy V. Corson
So, How did Sister Paraclita’s Album End Up in a Garage Antique Shop:
And What Happened to Irvin?
It was natural, in the beginning, to think that one of Sister Paraclita’s Sister friends had added the obituary, the photographs of her family, and the articles about her painting exhibits, to the album of her artwork for the convent archives. And perhaps, it was mistakenly discarded by someone cleaning her room.
It was the presence of Sister Paraclita’s obituary, and several photos taken at the funeral of her family behind the convent, that threw Jenna, and me, off the track early on. They were identified on the back as her mother, two sisters, and a niece. The mother wore traditional Indian clothes with a shawl around her shoulders.
Now, of course, I realized that the person who took those pictures must have been, Irvin, the man who created the album, which meant he must have been at the funeral.
The snapshots of Sr. Paraclita through the years were also a puzzle. It would seem that only Sister Paraclita would have kept pictures of herself over a long span of time. Since Jenna had kept the two younger photographs of Sister Paraclita in her paint box from the moment she found them, I had not seen them.
However, this one photograph of Sr. Paraclita in her classroom, which was still with the others, appears to be one taken at an early age. The heading on the blackboard behind her will also have to remain a mystery. The last word, or words, of ART IS THE EXPRESSION . . . are missing and will probably never be known.
Yet, in getting to know Sister Paraclita through her artwork, I would have to say that Art is the Expression of what is Beautiful would describe the world of religion and art she lived in.
Shortly after I wrote the above thoughts, I was looking at some photocopies I had made of articles about Sister Paraclita, which Jenna had found in her album of artwork. Beneath a picture of her, in an article about her work in a magazine of Indian Art, the answer came, in Sister Paraclita’s own words:
After much more questioning of different sisters this strange little story came to light. One of the Sisters who only knew Sister Paraclita by her reputation, did not know her personally, (proof that we may never know where a new clue may come from) said that a nice looking middle-aged man approached her at Sister Paraclita’s funeral service.
She thought he might have been from South Bend and could have been a painter too. He told her this story: He said he was a long-time admirer of Sister Paraclita and her work, had corresponded with her over the years, and she had given him a large painting of roses which he treasured. One evening, he was at home reading, in the room where this picture was hanging, when it fell from the wall with a clatter. His first thought was that something might have happened to Sister Paraclita. The next night, he said, her obituary appeared in the newspaper. The picture had fallen from the wall the day of her death.
Perhaps, because of her illness, she had not been able to write and he did not even know that she had been returned to the mother house at Saint Mary’s to be cared for there.
I could only think, what a strong spirit Sister Paraclita must have to be returning in memory some seven years later in such a strange fashion -- by way of the album of her work -- to encourage and comfort my friend with her artwork in her illness. And also to be remembered to her Sister friends through my attempt to solve the mystery of what appeared to be her misplaced album of artwork.
Now I wondered again, could the man who owned the album and the man at the funeral be the same person? And what was his last name? Did he live in South Bend? The Sister who told me the story knew nothing else about him.
Could he have since died and his personal belongings been sold at auction, or maybe left behind by mistake when he moved away? Having once been a working artist myself, and for 25 years now having been away from it, I began to wonder, myself, if the spirit of Sister Paraclita was aiming at me too.
Throughout my interviews with the occasional Sister who knew her, I met many interesting Sisters who had spent time with her out west (where apparently she had spent most of her life). And I heard many interesting stories about her which I passed on to my friend Jenna who began to consider Sister Paraclita a part of her own life. She said it was almost as if she had known her when she was living. She says Sister Paraclita goes with her now wherever she sketches, and she even took her to the Smokies with her on her last vacation. How interesting that Sister Paraclita, in spirit, seemed to be passing on her encouragement from the young man to my friend.
At this point, I decided to hunt up the woman at the antique shop to see how the album had come into her possession. In doing so, I found the last remaining oil painting from the album still there (awaiting my visit perhaps?). She said it was the last of six she had taken from the album to be sold separately. I purchased it for myself thinking it would be a fond remembrance of Sister Paraclita and a perfect painting to illustrate this story. I’d like to think is it was also waiting for me to rescue it as little reward for not giving up on my mission to solve the mystery of Sister Paraclita’s Album. It is the painting below. The words beneath the painting are the words written on the back of the postcard-sized painting. I now have it on a small easel in my living room where its colorful scene never fails to lift my spirits.
Unfortunately, I learned little from the shop keeper in Edwardsburg. All she could tell me was that it was in a box of odds and ends she had purchased from an auction in Niles, Michigan. She recalled a camera (I learned later that Irvin had worked at Schillings photography shop) being in the box and several other household items which concealed the album which was in the bottom. She wasn’t aware of it until she went through the box later. She knew nothing more about it or where it came from. I could only marvel that Jenna’s husband had been able to purchase it for $25 when she was asking $7 for each oil painting she’d sold from it. Almost as if it was waiting for just such a compassionate twosome to find it before it was dismantled entirely and sold separately.
More telephone calls to a Niles auctioneer revealed no more information. Other than, Lady we never know where we get our stuff from. Another dead end. Not much learned but I had an excellent example of Sister Paraclita’s artwork as a remembrance for myself. Finding the last oil painting from the album still in the antique shop was a stroke of luck.
Through all this investigation I was beginning to feel like Kate Columbo, Private Eye. Each new path led to scraps of information, seemingly insignificant, but nonetheless pieces in a puzzle that I hoped would one day solve the mystery of Sister Paraclita’s mysterious friend and how the album of her artwork found its way into a dusty corner of a cluttered Michigan antique shop.
I had neared the end of the names of Sisters in residence at the convent who might have known her, yet, even so, something made me believe I was on the brink of discovering what I hoped would be a rather surprising ending to this mystery story. However, I needed more facts to support my theory.
Several Sisters offered to write for information from others not locally available who might have known Sister Paraclita’s correspondent while I wrote to her brother in Blackfoot, Idaho. After weeks passed and none of us received answers to our letters, I decided the delay might have been purposeful and that I should follow through with one last name I had just heard of that would require a letter, Sister Danielita in Hammond, IN, considered her best friend and the most likely person to know details of her background and friends.
I wrote and told her about the name Cpl. Irvin mentioned in the scraps of letters on the backs of sketches and told her I believed she might have been his childhood teacher, was fond of him, wrote to him before and during the war, and encouraged his interest in art. And that he might also have been an army buddy of Sister Paraclita’s brother. That I was looking for a line on his last name or the address of his family and I was hoping she might be able to help remember this person in her life. I also mentioned the several small sketches of the very pretty girl, one in a uniform and one with the name Lorraine Miller written across it, most likely a friend of both of them. I was hoping I could find evidence of his family name, and if I could locate the whereabouts of the girl in the album, she might know it.
I realized that writing her was a real long shot but there had been so many intriguing coincidental (or should I say Providential) happenings since my search had begun that I had been moved not to leave any stone unturned in pursuing any leads given to me. Hers being my last attempt regarding these friends who peopled Sister Paraclita’s past.
On February 6, 1980, I received my hoped for reply from Sister Danielita surprised again at the significant coincidence of my letter’s timely arrival in her midst. Following is an excerpt from her reply:
I do not know Irvin. I met him for the first time at Sister’s funeral [my first confirmation of my theory]. He was a pupil of hers at St. Patrick’s School in South Bend where Sister taught for a few years as a young nun before spending the rest of her life out west. I do not recall his surname, but it sounded to me as if it were Polish.
However, my aunt from South Bend was visiting me with her daughter and son-in-law when your letter arrived [another happy happenstance] and I related my surprising experience of your letter to them. My aunt, who is 90 years old recalled visiting Sister Paraclita at St. Agnes Convent in Los Angeles, and remembered that Sister asked her to phone this friend of hers when she returned home [which meant his home must be in South Bend, and somewhere, no doubt near the St. Patrick’s School].
Her Aunt thought she had his name in her diary, but did not. However, after much thought [this at 90 years old] she remembered it. She called a party by that name, and was informed that Irvin had died about five years before [which would have been about two years after Sister Paraclita’s death]. I was stunned to learn this! As he had looked the picture of health at Sister Paraclita’s funeral. Perhaps you could phone someone by this name in the telephone book and verify this information. [She listed her Aunt’s name for me to contact.]
Her ninety year old Aunt was a delightful lady, on the phone, and in person, when I visited her. I wanted to thank her personally for providing the missing link in the puzzle of Sister Paraclita’s album.
The end of the story? Not quite, as I had hoped to learn more about this man and his special devotion to Sister Paraclita. So much so, that he had lovingly cared for even the smallest piece of artwork she had sent him from his childhood and through the years since. He had even finished the album with her obituary and pictures of her family who had attended the funeral.
The first phone call I made of the several of that name listed in the phone book, by sheer chance, happened to be this man’s brother, who said he now had Sister Paraclita’s painting of the roses. However, I received a very cool reception to any further polite questions of inquiry I asked him about his brother. I had obviously touched a sore spot, but it took me a while to find out why. Call my lawyer if you want information about my brother, he said roughly and I felt stung when I hung up.
A dead end, I thought. Where do I go from here? Then the thought came to mind, if he was dead as Sister Danielita had been informed then there had to be an obituary. Next stop the library and the necrology files and the micro film machines. Died, age 56, August 22, 1974, Memorial Hospital after a six-weeks illness, burial Cedar Grove Cemetery, World War II veteran. Two years after Sister Paraclita’s death, yet he had appeared in excellent health at her funeral.
Next stop the funeral home for whatever information about the surviving family I could obtain. Another coincidence. It was owned by the daughter and son-in-law of my widowed mother’s closest friend. Once I identified myself I was able to obtain information not normally of public knowledge. Did he know of this particular man? As it happened he had lived next door to his family. Strange case, he said, his brother refused to bury him. From the funeral director, I obtained information about where Irvin had worked and the name of a close childhood friend.
She was a loving and compassionate, former neighbor and friend. She said Irvin was unmarried and kept to himself. He had lived in his father’s home [since his father’s death one Xmas Eve] with two maiden aunts. She said the brothers were as different as night and day. His brother was 6’ 5”, 250 pds. He was low, coarse, crude and malicious [I could vouch for that, at least over the phone]. Whereas Irvin was medium height and slim, a friendly, beautiful man who appreciated the finer things of life, most especially music and art. She said, We grew up together and he was one of the finest friends anyone could have. He was very secretive, as I was. If we wanted someone to know something, we’d tell them, the rest we kept to ourselves. Now that he is gone, I think it’s too bad he didn’t share more of his life, his friends missed knowing him.
The man he’d worked with for a number of years, who owned the photography shop, said when he left there in 1972 [the year of Sister Paraclita’s death], he said he was going to travel, to be foot loose and fancy free. He gave no other explanation. No one knew then that, as with Sister Paraclita, he was dying of cancer and had decided to spend his life’s savings seeing the world. His traveling and six weeks hospital stay apparently used up all he had. When the brother refused to bury him the Order of Friers arranged the funeral in August and it was not until February that the bill was paid and the estate settled. When an Aunt offered to pay the expenses, the brother was finally shamed into taking care of it himself. He was buried in Notre Dame’s Cedar Grove Cemetery.
How had the album escaped unnoticed. Undoubtedly, the brother was angry that there was nothing substantial for him and reportedly said there was nothing in the house worth keeping. So he had everything removed and sold at auction -- unknowingly, the album and his camera among other household items was loaded into boxes. A sad story . . . perhaps but also an inspiring one. They say what goes around comes around. And Sister Paraclita’s album had certainly proven that axiom. It has come full circle -- along with this story -- back to her community of Sister friends at the Saint Mary’s campus. Her artwork in the album resurrecting and illustrating a memorable and touching story of one teacher’s steadfast encouragement and one young man’s appreciation of the silent influence his favorite teacher had upon his life. So much so, that he would keep the uplifting encouragement of her artwork, lovingly preserved throughout his lifetime.
As noted at the beginning of this story all these events happened in 1979. Why has it taken until 1992, 12 years later, for me to write this promised story for my friend Jenna and Sister Paraclita’s Sister friends at the convent? Sister Danielita’s letter, which became the last piece in the puzzle arrived the day before my husband was rushed to the hospital with a massive aortic aneurysm -- a very close call. The next six months were spent attending to his needs and adjusting to changed circumstances during his long and miraculous recovery from emergency surgery.
Out of necessity the writing of this mystery solved was put on a back burner. After which, I soon learned for myself how true it is that the muse is something we lose if we don’t act upon it promptly.
The years have flown by since then, filled with learning experiences and family doings while Sister Paraclita’s story was pigeon holed for some time in the future, I knew not when. My good friend Jenna died eight years later, in the summer of 1987, after a gallant 19 year battle with a double mastectomy and numerous cancers, the last inoperable, still painting -- shells, rocks and whatever item took her fancy.
And Sister Danielita and her 90 year Aunt have also passed away in the interim. During these past 12 years our son, became a computer software engineer, and has taught me much about computers I could never have known otherwise (in preparation for this story perhaps)?
A recent event in my life brought Sister Paraclita’s unfinished story to mind, nudging me to keep my promise and commit its many chance and happenstance encounters to print as proof that events and people are all interconnected and interrelated in more ways than we can ever imagine. The pattern of events so intricate and interwoven that it is difficult to see where one event blends in with another.
Recently, through a very similar set of fortuitous circumstances, I have been researching the origin of the Notre Dame Grotto -- who planned it, who built it and how it came to be. It was while I was searching for information on the Grotto, and noting the many inexplicable chance encounters and happy happenstance clues connected with it, that I realized I’d been down this path in the past -- in solving the mystery of Sister Paraclita’s album. Only this time, instinctively, I have been taking continuous notes, whereas with Sister Paraclita’s story, never having done it before, I have relied on my memory to tell her story.
The formula then was to follow my intuitive impulses. It worked then and it is working now though I wasn’t consciously aware that I was doing the same thing. Now 12 years later, in beginning my research on the Notre Dame Grotto, the pattern has been repeating itself with innumerable clues that have led to numerous new found items of interest about the origin of the Grotto. Even to discovering the ghost of another Grotto (its remains) long ago abandoned in the glen at Saint Mary’s College.
It was in the midst of this latest search that Sister Paraclita came to mind and the untold story of her album became foremost in my mind. It seemed to belong on record before I proceeded further with the Notre Dame Grotto story. Since I have a few years before the Grotto’s centenary (1996), and 1992 being the year of Native American Studies, I decided to take a break in my current research of the Grotto and complete Sister Paraclita’s story first.
When Jenna’s husband, Frank, graciously offered to allow me to make color duplicates of the paintings and sketches in the album to preserve in the archives, the muse returned full force urging me to keep my promise.
For me, recording this story has become further evidence that we don’t have to be famous or well known to quietly leave our footprints on the sands of time -- to mark the path for others -- each of us in our own small way. This story is one of my proofs -- if only for myself alone -- that there truly is a conspiracy of events and circumstances -- and that when we cultivate a spiritual awareness and listen to our hearts, the nudge to act upon our intuitions will come, the door will be opened, and the right words and actions will be there when we need them.
My own self-experience, and the writings of others along the way, have convinced me that what we do for ourselves, in following our intuitions, we may also be doing for someone else. Whether it be in written expression, or as in Irvin’s case, the preservation of Sister Paraclita’s artwork. Our words or deeds may live on again in another time and place -- for someone else -- long after we are gone. Just as the album of Sister Paraclita’s artwork is doing right now.
And so I feel, even at this late date, if no one else appreciates my reasons for writing it, I’d like to believe there are four people in Heaven who will, because I have felt the warmth of their smiles all the way through it . . . almost as if the story had written itself.
Dorothy V. Corson
I bid you farewell with one of the cheery greetings, above, Sister Paraclita sent to her friend, Irwin. All my Sister friends who knew Sister Paraclita are gone now but will never be forgotten. This story of Sister Paraclita’s artwork will keep them all in our fond memories. Especially, so since it is eleven years later and I can now share her story and her artwork on the Internet.
I would have had no way of knowing it then, but I’m sure now, that my research on Sister Paraclita’s story was preparing me for my future research on the Notre Dame Grotto.