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Dominican Sisters’ COVID-19 art exhibit memorializes pandemic deaths

ADRIAN, Mich. (CNS) — During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the community of Adrian Dominican Sisters was a microcosm of the suffering and loss inflicted by the coronavirus. Of the 219 residents at the sisters’ motherhouse in Adrian, 14 passed away from COVID-19 in the pandemic’s first year.

The loss left the remaining sisters to process their grief, and many chose to do so through art. This past May-August, the sisters displayed some of this art at an exhibit in 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 came about after a group of the sisters and their friends met on Zoom to share the work they had created during the pandemic.

“It was an effort to both process the COVID reality and the pandemic and all that was going on and a lot of the loss that was happening, and the illness and death that was happening and the uncertainties, plus to give expression to our own creative selves,” said Adrian Dominican Sister Suzanne Schreiber, coordinator for the sisters’ gallery space, INAI: A Space Apart.

Through quilting, Adrian Dominican Sister Nancyann Turner said she was able to take 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 “within” — was the vision of Adrian Dominican Sisters Barbara Chenicek and Rita Schiltz, who died in 2015 and 2020, respectively. In the 1970s, the sisters made the old laundry a studio and gallery space and when Sister Chenicek died, the sisters decided to make it a permanent gallery where they also could host classes and retreats.

The “Art in the Time of COVID” exhibit featured a variety of art styles, from painting to photography to quilting, journaling and collaging and more. Visitors were invited to write the names of those lost to COVID-19 on a slip 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 one way, this global pandemic made us global citizens, so as you grieved these people you also knew of, you also saw pictures of New York City and Italy and France, and it was a chance to lament in a more community way,” she told Detroit Catholic, news outlet of the Detroit Archdiocese.

Sister Turner, who has been a Dominican for more than 60 years, participated in the exhibit with multiple artistic mediums, including memorial quilts, collaging and creative journal entries.

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

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

“I think it is another wonderful example of feminine creativity,” she said. “In this time of hibernation and cocooning, it was a very comforting thing to work on each week and to remember again my mom and my grandmother as I selected and stitched those different colors, which helped me lament but also helped me 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 made it, it extended into a memorial of everyone she knew who had died.

“It was a way to get outside and use soil and seeds and follow the legacy of my father, grandfather and grandmother, who were all farmers, so that was another way that I tried to create a place of beauty to honor the recent death of our own sister,” she said.

She also contributed to a larger memorial project for those lost to COVID-19. In 2021, Detroit began to crowdsource for a public community art memorial to recognize the depth of loss in the region 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 were lost to the coronavirus particularly the sisters.

“We lost 14 sisters to COVID that year despite our best effort, so I made a memorial for each of them, and then a couple of the kids 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 endeavor of trying to remember each of them and almost connect with them. Each of those little pouches included a little prayer or a little letter to them — something of a memorial to them. It was a very peaceful and sacred endeavor to me, of making the remembering tangible. And each memorial was different. I used beads and lace and yarn and stitches, and I just felt connected (to them).”

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

“I think part of our Dominican spirituality and our Christian spirituality is to respond to God’s creativity and to use 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 working against racism, but I also think there is a call to create beauty and a call to affirm people’s yearning for the sacred.”


Author Gabriella Patti is a news reporter on the staff of Detroit Catholic, the online news outlet of the Archdiocese of Detroit.

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Copyright © 2022 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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