SISTER MARY THOMAS, PCPA
the poor clares of perpetual adoration
written by jerri donohue
SISTER MARY THOMAS, PCPA
Although in a state of grace, Joan Schiefen suddenly felt unworthy to receive the Eucharist. She left the Communion line, but an internal force immediately urged her to rejoin it.
Receiving the Host during that Easter Vigil Mass in the crypt of St. Peter’s Basilica in 1959 changed the direction of Joan’s life.
“It brought Christ to me in such a forceful way,” she recalled decades later.
“I like to think of it like St. Paul. I suppose that’s presumptuous, but at the same time for me, that’s what it was. . . the complete reality of union with Christ at that time. That changed my whole perception of what my life should be.”
Up to that moment, Joan focused on becoming the best artist she could be. Her year and a half sojourn in Rome was just the latest in a series of career-building experiences. Right out of high school, the Appleton, Wisconsin native had trained at the Art Institute of Chicago. She then spent a year at the Instituto Allende in Guanajuato, Mexico learning mosaic technique from renowned muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros. She admired her affable teacher’s style and over a 4-month period, she produced a wall-sized portrait of him with fellow muralists Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco. Joan completed a second mural before heading to New York City.
In New York, the artist drew candy, beer and soft drinks for print advertisements and she sometimes modeled dresses for co-workers who produced fashion illustrations. She continued to paint on her own time, and participated in group shows. After two years, she returned to Chicago and worked as a draftsman. She fulfilled a wish to work in stained glass by creating designs for Daprato Studios, including one of Christ the King. Meanwhile, she saved her wages and sold some of her paintings to finance study in Italy.
In Rome, Joan wandered in museums, encountering great works of art face-to- face. Fascinated by the early Christians, she visited the coliseum, the Catacombs and other historic sites.
Her interests gradually shifted. She began to paint religious subjects more often. At the same time, her career seemed less important. Increasingly restless, she hungrily read books on spirituality. She made a 30-day novena to Mary during Lent, asking to know God’s will for her life.
Joan felt certain that she had received her answer during the Easter Vigil service, and she resolved to devote her life to the Eucharist. She learned about the Franciscan Nuns of the Blessed Sacrament (now the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration) in a directory lent to her by an American priest. She promptly applied to the monastery in Cleveland and soon joined the Poor Clares at the Conversion of St. Paul Shrine.
On May 14, 1960, Joan Schiefen became Sister Mary Thomas of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. “Thomas,” after St. Thomas the Apostle, was her first choice for a religious name.
“St. Thomas really impressed me,” she said. “In demanding a proof of Christ’s Resurrection, he exacted a proof. If he hadn’t done that, how many would not have believed?”
The other nuns didn’t know she had been an artist and Sister Thomas didn’t miss that part of her previous life. She embraced the cloister’s ascetic lifestyle and her duties within the community.
Her days began at 4:30 in the morning and included meditation, Mass, praying the Divine Office with her Sisters and spending several hours in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. For a while, her “work charge” was sweeping and mopping the corridor.
At each stage of a Poor Clare’s religious formation, the other Sisters vote on whether or not she should remain. “From postulancy to novice, then first profession, you’re voted on, for three years,” Sister Thomas explained. “Then for another three years. Your solemn profession is the final vote. It really does give you a chance to evaluate your vocation.”
Although she was an only child, Sister Mary Thomas’s parents did not discourage her from entering the convent, and they attended the profession of her final vows. Sister didn’t handle a paintbrush during her first 14 years in the cloister and she assumed she had given up art for good. Then one year, the community celebrated a major feast day with a display of individually prepared arts and crafts. Sister Thomas’s offering was a sketch of a stained glass window depicting the Holy Trinity.
The Superior later asked Sister Thomas to design priestly vestments, and she eventually requested a portfolio of the artist’s work. Commissions for paintings and murals followed. Her work appears in parish churches in the Cleveland diocese and in locations such as St. Francis Capuchin College in Washington, D.C. and the Mary and Mercy Center in Ave Maria, Florida.
Sister Thomas favors vibrant hues and elongated figures, reflections of her admiration for El Greco and for the Mexican muralists. Catholicism supplies her with subjects ranging from the martyrdom of St. Sebastian to St. Francis’s Canticle of Brother Sun.
She wants her art to express God’s love for His people.
“The whole thing basically is to promote the faith,” Sister Thomas said.
The tiny artist prefers working on large-scale works. Because of their size, they can’t be limited to private homes but instead demand the space available in a church or public building where more people see them.
“That’s how you can evangelize,” Sister Thomas said.
She labored on Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament and the Communion of Saints for several years. While working on the 30 ft. by 16 ft. mural, the elderly nun donned a smock over her habit and then knelt on the floor for hours while she painted.
Health problems have periodically interrupted her work. Diagnosed with glaucoma in 2004, she underwent laser treatments. An allergic reaction to eye drops briefly slowed her down, as did a broken arm resulting from a fall.
Sometimes her duties within the community required most of her time. She served as its bursar, and her website is named MotherThomasArt.org because she was the Superior from 2010 to 2013.Her most difficult role was novice directress.
“I just don’t have the personality for that,” she said. “But anyway I did it.”
Sister Thomas witnessed small changes during her decades as a Poor Clare. The Sisters are now permitted to read the newspaper and they occasionally watch special events on television, such as Pope’s Francis’s visit to the United States. They continue to live an austere life, however. They eat meat a few times a week and celebrate major holidays with treats like pizza and Kentucky Fried Chicken. They spend most of each day in silence, too.
Sister Thomas rarely leaves the monastery. When she travels down Euclid Avenue for doctor or dentist appointments, she remembers the first time she spotted the Conversion of St. Paul Shrine - from a train window while traveling to Chicago from New York City.
“I just looked at it, thinking of the beauty of the building,” she said. “I never thought I would be here.”
After 61 years as a Poor Clare, Sister Thomas still seems amazed by the turn her life took. When she kneels before the Blessed Sacrament, and before she falls asleep at night, she often thanks God for this unexpected vocation and the happiness it has brought her.
“I never thought I would enter a cloister, not in my wildest dreams,” she said. “It’s a miracle I’m here. I love it so much!”
Sister Mary Thomas, PCPA is 87 years old.