By Mary Flynn, Archivist
In celebration of the Art Walk, this column will highlight four Sister artists from the congregation’s history.
Sister Agnes Berchmans Landry is perhaps the best known artist in the community. Her paintings line the walls of Caritas Residence and Sisters of Charity Centre in Halifax and Mount Saint Vincent Wellesley. Her large paintings of the Sisters’ arrival in Halifax in 1849, ministering on McNabs Island in 1866, and St. Vincent de Paul hang out outside the Caritas Residence Chapel and are frequently used to illustrate the early history and roots of the community. In 1879, Julia Landry was born to an Acadian family in Bouctouche, NB. The family moved to Eel Brook, NS, where Julia met the Sisters of Charity. She joined the community in 1897 and served as a teacher in Dorchester, MA before moved to Academy of the Assumption in Wellesley Hills, MA. Her talents in art were noticed and encouraged from an early age and while missioned in Wellesley, Father Gallagher arranged for Sister Agnes Berchmans and Sister Anne Maria Barber to study art in Florence, Italy under Signor Filadelfo Simi.
In 1928, Sister Agnes Berchmans moved to Mount Saint Vincent Motherhouse, where she decorated the chapel. After the devastating fire in 1951, she dedicated the last twenty years of her life to recreating the lost works of art.
In August 2021, several Sisters from Halifax attended the opening of an exhibit of Sister Agnes Berchmans’ paintings in her hometown’s Musée de Kent. The Sisters of Charity loaned four paintings to the museum for display. To read more about the event, check out the Sisters’ Facebook post about the celebration.
Anne Maria Barber
Two oil paintings in the first Art Walk gallery are by Sister Anne Maria Barber, an artist who studied with Sister Agnes Berchmans in Florence, Italy. Mary Barber was born in Prospect, NS in 1864 and entered the congregation in 1892. From her entrance until 1928, she spent nearly every year at the Mount Saint Vincent Academy, teaching art. It was during her ministry at the Mount that she went to Florence to study art with Sister Agnes Berchmans Landry. In 1920, the congregation needed to change their habit due to difficulties in sourcing the fabric for the headdress, a glazed cotton that was in short supply after World War II. Sisters were asked to submit design suggestions for the new coif. Sister Anne Maria’s design won and was in use from January 4, 1921 until the late 1960s.
After serving in Halifax, Sister Anne Maria then moved to Bermuda, where she continued her ministry at Mount Saint Agnes Academy. After a year at Wellesley Hills, MA, she returned to Halifax to retire at St. Mary’s Convent. Sister Anne Maria’s obituary notes that even on her last day of life, she followed her daily routine of dusting one of her last pieces of art, the Stations of the Cross in St. Mary’s. At the time of her death, she was the oldest member of the congregation at age 93.
Agnes Vincent Kelly
Another contemporary of Sister Agnes Berchmans was Sister Agnes Vincent Kelly. Born in 1889 in Halifax, Irene Marie Kelly graduated from Mount Saint Vincent Academy and then entered the Sisters of Charity in 1910. She taught for more than fifty years in the United States, Canada, and Bermuda and shared her artistic talents at Mount Saint Agnes Academy, Academy of the Assumption, and Mount Saint Vincent Novitiate. In the 1930s, Sister Agnes Vincent earned diplomas in art from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Vesper George School of Art in Boston, MA.
Sister Agnes Vincent assisted Sister Agnes Berchmans Landry with the centenary murals in Mount Saint Vincent Motherhouse for the 100th anniversary of the community in 1949. Unfortunately, we do not have many examples of Sisters Agnes Vincent’s artwork, however we can celebrate her talent in the Art Walk with her untitled portrait of a floral bouquet from circa 1950.
The final Sister profiled in this article is a more contemporary artist in the community. Sister Zelma LeBlanc was a talented and prolific artist of multiple mediums. Her drawings, paintings, and wooden sculpture can be found in the Art Walk galleries. Sister Zelma was born in Boston, MA but raised in Digby County, NS. She entered the community in 1944 and became a teacher, serving for 21 years in Nova Scotia.
In 1968, she answered the call to serve as a missionary in Peru. Sister Zelma did pastoral work and created and taught liturgical art in Chiclayo, Cajamarca, and Ilo, Peru. In 2005, she retired from her ministries and moved back to Nova Scotia, where she continued making art until her death a year later.
In addition to earning her BA in Religious Studies from Mount Saint Vincent University and a teaching degree, Sister Zelma also studied plastic arts at Concordia University in Montreal in 1974-1975. She dabbled in drawing, painting, wood sculptures, mosaics, painting rocks, stained glass windows, banners, and woodcuts. Frequent subjects of her works of art were flowers, Peruvian campesinos (farm workers), and religious imagery, especially Mary, St. Vincent de Paul, and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.