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 Sister Mary Francis Irvin  (1914 - 2011)

About: Sister Mary Francis Irvin


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Lived/Active: South Carolina/Pennsylvania/Ohio      Known for: painting, teaching, engraving, stained glass

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Ad Code: 4
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Following is the obituary of the artist, published online in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 18, 2013.

By Ann Rodgers / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Obituary: Mary Francis Irvin/Nun, artist, charismatic voice for Seton Hall"

In 1972, Sister Mary Francis Irvin was praying about the future of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill and its college when she heard a voice say, "The college and the community will be saved by prayer."

The art professor took the voice seriously. She became a leader in the charismatic movement as she raised money that would help build the college into Seton Hill University.

"She thought God wanted us to be joyful, so she was joyful and affirming. She had an indomitable faith that God was at work and that God would help us to do good and to spread the good news," said Sister Ann Infanger, professor emerita of biology at Seton Hill, and her close friend.

Sister Mary Francis died Saturday at Caritas Christi, the motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill in Greensburg. She was 96.

She grew up in Wilkinsburg, the niece of two Sisters of Charity. She felt called to the community from childhood and entered at 18.

Her superiors noticed her gift for art and sent her to what is now Carnegie Mellon University. While there, she taught at St. Anselm School in Swissvale, enlisting the other sisters as models. In 1943, one of her paintings, Convent Kitchen, won second place in the Pittsburgh Associated Artists Show.

"That was the painting that got me in the papers," she told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2003.

The painting drew the attention of Betsy Bramer, the widow of a steel magnate. She stayed in touch even as Sister Mary Francis earned a Master of Fine Arts in painting from Cranbrook Academy of Arts in Michigan. In 1950, the year that Seton Hill established an art department, Mrs. Bramer sponsored an exhibit of Sister Mary Francis' paintings at the Pittsburgh Playhouse.

Former students recall Sister Mary Francis as a superb and caring teacher.

"There were no limits to what she expected of you and what she would help you to do. She wanted the best and she wanted to see all of our students achieve their very best," said Sister Jean Boggs, who recalled Sister Mary Francis helping her to form a wooden bowl on a lathe.

Sister Mary Francis created the coat of arms and emblem of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill. Her paintings hang in the school and the motherhouse. Her masterpiece was 110 stained glass windows that channel light into the motherhouse chapel.

Her transition from art to fundraising began in the 1960s, when she realized that the federal government was pumping money into science programs, and she got grants to build the Lynch Hall for Science. In 1971, she became the school's director of development.

"Her goal was to keep building and building until we got stronger and stronger," Sister Jean said.
One goal eluded her: a center dedicated to the visual arts.

"They never got to it," Sister Ann said. "Someone said that, now that she's up with God, she can help intercede. She was very persistent."

It was during a capital campaign that she reported hearing God call the community to prayer. Another sister had intrigued her with stories about the joyous devotion to prayer among Protestant Pentecostals. A third sister organized an expedition to St. Francis Seminary in Loretto, Cambria Country, where the Rev. Michael Scanlan was leading Pentecostal-like charismatic gatherings for Catholics.

When they returned, Sister Mary Francis helped to found the Family of God, a charismatic prayer group that still meets weekly at Seton Hill. She led it for 35 years.

"She was my mentor in prayer," Sister Ann said. "She influenced oodles of people who were part of that prayer group over the years. She was our matriarch."

In 1977, Sister Mary Francis helped to create a retreat and renewal center at Seton Hill. In the 1980s, she was active in an evangelical social justice initiative, the Pittsburgh Offensive. At a Pittsburgh Offensive gathering, she sat on a bench that flipped over, badly injuring her neck. She was never able to straighten it, forcing her retirement, Sister Ann said.

While her body became increasingly frail, her mind stayed active.

On Saturday morning, Sister Ann said, she told one of the nurses, "I'm going to die today." The nurse replied that there was no way she could predict that.

"But she said that, yes, she was. And at 11 o'clock that night, she slipped away," Sister Ann said.

Sister Mary Francis is survived by a sister, Gertrude Glick of Mt. Lebanon. Her funeral was Wednesday.
Gifts can be made to the Sisters of Charity, 144 DePaul Center Road, Greensburg, PA 15601.


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