Dominican Sisters’ COVID-19 Art Exhibit Commemorates Pandemic Deaths

ADRIAN, Mich. (CNS) — At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Adrian Dominican Sisters community was a microcosm of the pain and loss inflicted by the coronavirus. Of the 219 residents of the sisters’ motherhouse in Adrian, 14 died of COVID-19 in the first year of the pandemic.

The loss left the remaining sisters to process their grief, and many chose to do so through art. Last May-August, the sisters featured some of this art in an exhibit at their gallery at the Weber Retreat and Conference Center. The exhibit, “Art in the Time of COVID,” featured the work of eight women, including five sisters.

It happened after a group of sisters and their friends met on Zoom to share the work they had created during the pandemic.

“It was an effort to address both the COVID reality and the pandemic and all that was happening and a lot of the loss that was happening, and the sickness and death that was happening and the uncertainties, more to give a expression to our own creativity ourselves,” said Adrian Dominican Sister Suzanne Schreiber, Sisters Gallery Space Coordinator, INAI: A Space Apart.

Through quilting, Dominican Sister Adrian Nancyann Turner said she was able to take on the diversity of colors and shapes to create a new unity. (CNS Photo/Gabriella Patti, Detroit Catholic)

The INAI gallery – from a Japanese word meaning “inside” – was the vision of Dominican sisters Adrian Barbara Chenicek and Rita Schiltz, who died in 2015 and 2020 respectively. In the 1970s, the sisters made the former laundry room a studio and gallery space and when Sister Chenicek passed away, the sisters decided to make it a permanent gallery where they could also hold classes and retreats.

The “Art in the Time of COVID” exhibit showcased a variety of art styles, from painting and photography to quilting, journaling and collage, and more. Visitors were asked to write the names of those lost to COVID-19 on a piece of paper and place it in a basket as part of the exhibit.

For one of the artists, Adrian Dominican Sister Nancyann Turner, the exhibit was a way to process the grief of losing friends.

“In a way, this global pandemic has made us citizens of the world, so while you were mourning these people that you also knew, you also saw pictures of New York, Italy and France, and c t was an opportunity to mourn in a more communal way,” she told Detroit Catholic, news outlet for the Archdiocese of Detroit.

Sister Turner, a Dominican for over 60 years, participated in the exhibit with multiple artistic mediums, including memorial quilts, collages, and creative journal entries.

“I made three quilts – the first was a quilt of hope around when we thought COVID would be over in six months,” she said. The second quilt was called “Lament”, made in darker colors but with a burst of light to show “there is always a glimmer of new light and hope for resurrection”.

Through quilting, Sister Turner said she was able to take on the diversity of colors and shapes to create a new unity.

“I think it’s another wonderful example of female creativity,” she said. “During this time of hibernation and cocooning, it was a very heartwarming thing to work each week and to remember my mother and grandmother again as I selected and sewed these different colors, which made me feel better. helped me to grieve but also to have hope and peace.”

The exhibit also included photographs of two other projects Sister Turner worked on, including a memorial garden she created in memory of her own sister, who died before COVID-19. As she did, it expanded into a memorial of everyone she knew who had died.

“It was a way of going out and using soil and seeds and following the legacy of my father, my grandfather and my grandmother, who were all farmers, so it was a another way I tried to create a place of beauty to honor the recent death of our own sister,” she says.

She also contributed to a larger memorial project for those lost to COVID-19. In 2021, Detroit began crowdsourcing for a public community art memorial to recognize the extent of loss in the area during the pandemic. Detroiters and citizens of Southeast Michigan were invited to participate. Sister Turner decided to make memorial pouches for those she knew who had been lost to the coronavirus, especially the sisters.

“We lost 14 sisters to COVID that year despite our best efforts, so I made a memorial for each of them, then some of the children I had worked with at the Capuchin soup kitchen also died, so I made one for each of them too,” she said. “It was like a sacred effort to try to remember each one of them and almost connect with them. Each of these little pouches had a little prayer or a little letter to them – a kind of memorial to them. . It was a very peaceful and sacred endeavor for me, to make remembrance tangible. And every memorial was different. I used beads, lace, thread and stitches, and I just felt connected. (their).

In Adrian’s Dominican community, which numbers about 440 members, many of them are artists, and Sister Turner believes making art, albeit somewhat unofficially, is part of the charism of the order.

“I think part of our Dominican spirituality and our Christian spirituality is responding to God’s creativity and using our creative energies for the good of others,” Sister Turner said. “There are a lot of direct services that we do for justice and peace and to fight against racism, but I also think there is a call to create beauty and a call to affirm people’s desire for the coronation.”


Author Gabriella Patti is a staff reporter at Detroit Catholic, the online media outlet for the Archdiocese of Detroit.

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