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Atchison Sister ‘writes’ works of art, producing 250 icons over two decades

Benedictine Sister Paula Howard took up iconography late in life and discovered she had a talent for it. She’s been making up for lost time ever since. LEAVEN PHOTO BY MARIA BLONG

by Maria Blong
Special to The Leaven

ATCHISON — After a longtime career in education, Benedictine Sister Paula Howard settled into retirement at Mount St. Scholastica here, intending to fill her free time painting landscapes. Instead, she stumbled onto a different type of painting altogether — and has been making up for lost time ever since.

Sister Paula discovered her unexpected talent for iconography at an icon retreat hosted at the Mount’s Sophia Center in 2000. (Icons are “written” rather than painted. The word “iconography” in Greek translates to “writer of pictures.”)

“They said at the end of the week you would understand icons and produce one,” said Sister Paula. “I agreed to go in and do it, although I had been interested in [more traditional] painting.”

Despite her self-proclaimed title as a doodler with no formal art classes, her artistic flair blossomed as the week unfolded — grabbing the attention of her teacher, Sister Mary Charles McGough, OSB.

Benedictine Sister Paula Howard took up iconography late in life and discovered she had a talent for it. She’s been making up for lost time ever since. PHOTO BY MARIA BLONG

After the retreat, Sister Mary Charles urged Sister Paula to continue writing icons outside of the retreat.

This encouragement motivated Sister Paula to draft another icon, and then travel to Duluth, Minnesota, for Sister Mary Charles to critique it in a different workshop three months later.

Her artwork flourished from there.

“I really got hooked on icons,” said Sister Paula.

Her first impression of iconography was quite contrary to her current love for them, however.

She was initially introduced to iconography while teaching in Palestine — or “icon country,” as she calls it — during her eight and a half years at Bethlehem University.

“People had them in their homes, and they treated them like a sacrament,” recalled Sister Paula. “They baptized them and anointed them. It was part of a prayer center in their homes. All the churches had icons in them; so many, it was almost gaudy.”

“To tell you the truth, I didn’t link with them very well,” she added. “I thought they looked austere.”

It was not until the workshop in which Sister Paula went through the process of crafting one herself that she gained an appreciation for the craft behind each icon. Afterward, she began learning about the creation and message behind icons, as well as how to pray with them.

Sister Paula Howard, OSB, displays many of her completed icons on the walls of her studio. PHOTO BY MARIA BLONG

Centuries ago, icons were used for teaching the Gospel to others. Every aspect of an icon, from the colors to the style of the figures on the wood surface, informs the icon’s story.

Icons featuring Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary adorn those holy figures in garments of blue and red — colors that represent royalty. While other figures, like peasants, are depicted in brown or tan.

The facial features also characterized important religious attitudes. A small mouth indicated a contemplative nature, and large eyes acted, as the saying goes, as windows to the soul.

“When I went with the icon for Sister Mary Charles to critique, she was amazed at the face I had made,” said Sister Paula. “She said the eyes talked to you, and well, I guess they did. Everybody says the eyes are important.”

The creation of each icon requires the iconographer to enter into a prayerful act, like giving something up or meditating on a Scripture passage. Sister Paula found this process to be quite peaceful.

“I could spend hours — and as a matter of fact, I did spend hours,” she said. “Not in recent years . . . I’m getting older. I started when I was 78, and right now I’m 97.”

Sister Paula Howard, OSB, shows off one of her many completed icons in her studio. PHOTO BY MARIA BLONG

During those numerous hours, Sister Paula has completed an icon for each major feast day — with the exception of All Saints’ Day and one of the apostles, St. Matthias.

She jokes that she doesn’t foresee creating an icon for All Saints’ Day — there would be too many faces to include! — but hopes to finish St. Matthias after she recovers from a recent health setback.  

In the 20 years since she took up iconography, Sister Paula said, she has crafted 250 icons, two-thirds of which she has sold.

And although her discovery of icons put an end to her plans for a retirement spent painting landscapes, she’s not complaining.

Sister Paula has found that writing the scenery of heaven has its own rewards.

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The Leaven

The Leaven is the official newspaper for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

17 Comments

  • Sr. Paula allowed me to go into an attic many years ago, where I saw an ICON of the Nativity. I was so impressed. And even more so, about her life: retiring from an active life to beginning Icon-writing at age 78.
    A wonderful role-model for anyone, especially we elderly.
    I have her ICON of Our Lady of Vladimir written June 2002

  • Sister Paula is truly an inspiration that one is never too “old” to take up a new art or challenged. I am the proud owner of one of her icons of St. Benedict and St. Scholastica.

  • I have seen icons in church but knew nothing of the background. This was a great article. It was inspiring to see Sr. Paula’s second career and some of her beautiful work.

  • That is so very cool! Sister Mary Faith Schuster taught me the true meaning of writing so I am not surprised to read of another glorious and artistic talent from the Benedictine community!

  • What a wonderful article
    Sisters work of St benedict and St scholastica
    In the Heritage Room in Elizabeth hall is so
    Inspired
    God bless you Sister

  • I have been privileged to know Sister Paula Howard for over 60 years. I recently purchased a couple of her icons and they hang in places of honor in my home. I have also arranged to have one of her icons featured on my obituary card. Her icons are extraordinary and are truly inspirational as well as deeply prayerful. As a Benedictine, her icons are a masterful extension of her monastic spirituality. Special thanks to THE LEAVEN for this public profile of Sister Paula Howard

  • As a former student of Sister Paula’s, (50+ years ago), I was always impressed by her multiple talents as well as her kindndss and genuine spirituality. She has shown all of us who were lucky enough to be her students that you must continue to explore your talents and contribute, no matter what stage of life. I would love to see these as they look absolutely breathtaking.

  • Thank you for the article about Sr Paula’s writing of Icons, it was a blessing seeing her work and learning about her calling to help others to find God.

  • I am an Orthodox Christian (convert) and have come to appreciate the importance of icons in teaching and inspiring the principles of faith. I would be interested in meeting Sister Paula, with the hope of purchasing one of her icons.

  • Sr. Paula wrote an icon of St. Daniel in the den of lions for my dear friend and pastor, Fr. Dan Kelly. He has enjoyed this special gift for many years and is now regifting it to me as he prepares to return home to God after 4 cancers in 14 years. Please pray for a peaceful death for Fr. Dan.

    • That is so cool! Thank you for sharing another glorious artistic story from the Benedictine community. Sister Mary Faith Shuster taught me the true meaning of writing and I am forever grateful.

    • Having Sister Paula as a teacher at the Mount Academy was such a blessing! The icons are lovely.
      I have one written by a priest at nearby Mt. Angel Benedictine Abbey.
      It’s the mother and child!
      Blessings Sister Paula!
      Mary K. “Grove” Moran

  • Sister Paula has given us permission to reproduce her icon of Benedict and Scholastica for the exterior of St. Benedict Church, Montebello, CA. It just arrived from a local studio (3ft x 5ft) and will be installed on February 3. All 500 children in our school will be able to observe the installation and this will be a lasting memory for them. Sister Paula is anxious for me to send a photo. We will have a blessing on February 10, the feast of St. Scholastica.

  • I am blessed to have two of the original icons in my home! I was also privileged to have Sr. Paula as a teacher and role model during my high school days at Mount St. Scholastica Academy in the early ’50s for which I am most grateful! May you continue to be blessed, Sr. Paula!

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