Reflections Magazine Issue #54 - Fall 2000 - Page 9

Sister Helene O’Connor and her extraordinary legacy he founder of Studio Angelico was an artist, poet and universal scholar. Sister Helene O’Connor, the first art professor at Siena and founder of Studio Angelico, started life April 26, 1909, as Mary Regina O’Connor, the oldest of six children born to Corinne and Daniel O’Connor. Born in California, Mary grew up in Chicago attending Catholic schools. She was a precocious child from the beginning. She loved the Dominican nuns and often made herself a habit out of towels when playing school with her siblings. Her mother, an artist and poet herself, eventually made Mary a habit costume to play in. When Mary was 13, her mother died and she began caring for her five brothers and sisters. Her father remarried; soon there were three more children. Mary entered the Adrian Dominican novitiate at 17 in 1926. She took her vows and her new name two years later. In 1934, after studying art in Rome, Sister Helene was assigned to teach art at Siena Heights, then known as St. Joseph College. By 1936, she named the art program Studio Angelico after the great Dominican painter of the Renaissance, Fra Angelico. Before long, she decided the cramped quarters provided in the basement of Sacred Heart Hall were inadequate for the needs of her students. Sr. Helene talked with the architect who was finishing Archangelus and Benincasa Halls and proposed using the attic of Sacred Heart Hall for art classes. Even the architect was astonished to realize the possibilities of the space. In 1938, Studio Angelico opened in its official home on the fifth floor of Sacred Heart Hall. As professor and chairperson of the Art Department until 1956, Sr. Helene led Studio Angelico to national stature, shaping it into a liturgical center and a renowned resource for artists. She established a broad curriculum that included painting, sculpture, calligraphy, metallurgy, fashion illustration, weaving, and ecclesiastic art. She created liturgical pieces for places of religious worship all over the world. Her own artwork was exhibited in galleries such as the Portland Museum of Art, the Toledo Museum of Art, and the New York Metropolitan Museum. In the midst of these accomplishments, she completed her master’s degree at Cranbrook Academy of Art. Sr. Helene also was well trained in the sciences and in 1956, after 20 years of overwhelming productivity, she left Studio Angelico and Siena Heights for a new and equally productive career. For the next 23 years, she taught math and science to high Fond Recollections of Sister Helene By Mary Jo Stolpmann Fleming ‘47 So much has been said about the inspiration we students derived from the Dominican Sisters. Sister Helene was foremost in this role. Her department—and her students in the art department—were her primary concern. For the most part, Sister Helene did not relate to the “outsiders”—students in departments other than art. But to we who were the “chosen ones,” she was the last word. She