March 22, 2019, Detroit, Michigan – Years from now, visitors to the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) will view a series of nine paintings by Sister Barbara Cervenka, OP, and will learn of the peaceful, quiet, devoted life and the violent death of her cousin, Ursuline Sister Joanne Marie Mascha. Sister Barbara has donated the series to the DIA’s permanent collection.
“The series won’t be on permanent exhibit, but it’ll probably be shown from time to time,” Sister Barbara said. “When they do an exhibit of works on Michigan artists or work of a certain theme, then it’s very likely that the series would be put in the show.”
Sister Barbara approached Nancy Barr, one of the curators, last fall to offer the series for the permanent collection. The offer had to be discussed by a number of committees. The decision is made on a “case-by-case basis,” Sister Barbara explained. “My work wouldn’t be that well known, so [the decision] was based on the fact that the painting series was of a quality that they would want to accept it. It’s a very big compliment.”
But Sister Barbara is happy about the decision for a reason greater than the compliment to her artistic talent. “I’m so happy that they were accepted because it means that the paintings have a future – they’ll be seen by a larger audience, and Joanne’s life and death will continue to be remembered.”
Sister Barbara began painting the series in 1995, on the day of her cousin’s funeral. “I came down to the basement and started painting these little pieces, all within a short period of time.” The paintings depict the woods, the “trees that had welcomed her, that were the only witnesses to her death,” Sister Barbara wrote in an article about the death of her cousin. “The paintings were small gestures, like the lighting of a candle at a graveside, of bringing flowers to a wake. They were a gesture of paying attention.”
A few years older than Sister Barbara, Sister Joanne had been a member of the Ursuline Sisters of Cleveland for 40 years when she was killed. “She was a very nice person, a very kind, guileless person” who was involved in liturgical dance and in the peace movement. Sister Barbara last saw her cousin six months earlier, at the funeral of Sister Barbara’s sister, Anita.
Sister Joanne taught in elementary schools in Cleveland and spent the last 15 years of her life at her congregation’s Motherhouse, “working at the college library, performing pastoral work in neighboring parishes, and coordinating the Motherhouse switchboard,” Sister Barbara wrote. “She loved nature, went bird watching, and was trusting and talked easily to people.”
On the day of her death, March 27, 1995, Sister Joanne signed out at the Motherhouse switchboard and took a walk in the nearby woods. There, she encountered Daniel Pitcher, 21, who did odd jobs for neighbors and who was stalking birds with a bow and arrow. “Joanne never came back, never returned,” Sister Barbara wrote in the article. “She was left strangled, raped; she was left dead or dying.”
When Sisters at the Motherhouse realized the next day that she was missing, they called the police. She was found in the woods, 24 hours after her death. “The hardest part was imagining: the unwitnessed death with its fear, its terror, the violation of a trusting spirit,” Sister Barbara wrote. “Joanne was alone, for whatever length of time, she was alone, and this was a deep sadness.”
Sister Barbara noted the irony that Sister Joanne died violently 15 years after and half a world away from another Ursuline Sister of Cleveland: Sister Dorothy Kazel, one of four U.S. Church women raped and murdered by the military in El Salvador on December 2, 1980.
Like Sister Dorothy, Sister Joanne has been a reminder to the Ursuline Sisters of Cleveland of the many women who die violently. “When the Ursuline Sisters commemorate the anniversary of Joanne’s death, they use it as a way to remember all women who died violently or suffered violence,” Sister Barbara said.
The Ursuline Sisters continue their witness for peace by insisting that Daniel Pitcher, found guilty of murdering Sister Joanne, should not receive the death penalty. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Sister Barbara hopes her series of paintings will also be a witness, years into the future, of Sister Joanne and her commitment to peace. The paintings “are a commemoration,” she said. “When you do something like this, it’s so people don’t forget. … This is also a way to commemorate all women whose lives are torn apart by violence.”