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Cleveland Nun Paints Prayers in Mural

Inside a monastery in downtown Cleveland Mother Mary Thomas has been painting a mural.

Inside a monastery in downtown Cleveland Mother Mary Thomas has been painting a large mural on canvas.

The second floor chapel serves as studio space for her and her mural, which nearly fills the entire room at 28 by 17 feet.

“In it I have saints of… practically every century, not just canonized, but just ordinary people like ourselves,” she said on a recent morning while working on the mural.

Mother Thomas, now 83, became a cloistered nun more than 50 years ago with the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration. But before she came to the Euclid Avenue monastery she was establishing an art career.

She studied at the Chicago Institute of Art and then in Mexico. While there she painted a mural featuring the country’s three famed muralists Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros.

“What really spoke to me was the fact that they painted from their heart,” Thomas said.

Her heart led her to Rome, which is where she decided to become a nun.

“I came [to Cleveland] in November 1959, and I’ve been here ever since.”

When she entered the convent she put her art aside for more than a decade until others saw her ability and encouraged her to paint. Several of her pieces can be seen inside the church connected to the monastery.

For the last decade she has been working on this mural, which was commissioned by an African-American church in Philadelphia.

“I had the cartoon, it’s a full-size paper drawing, which I had to lay over the canvas and trace it on that from that,” she said.

Sharon Deitrick, a longtime fan and advocate for Mother Thomas’ art, has watched her progress from the drawing to a now mostly-complete painted mural.

“She begins with acrylic paints, she then overlays oil paints and then completes it with linseed oil,” Deitrick said.

As the mural was nearing completion, they received word that the Philadelphia church where it was headed was closing. 

“At that time, I said, ‘God has a place, let’s pray where that place might be,” Deitrick said.

She’s now working to get this mural to the Vatican Museums in Italy.

“It will not be a small task, but that is our target,” Deitrick said.

Mother Thomas has since adjusted her original design for the mural to appeal to a broad audience. 

“It would fit in with everybody,” she said. “It’s the end of our journey… our goal toward sanctity.”

Her art also helps support her fellow sisters. Prints of her work are sold through charity auctions to help raise money for the nuns.

“All 100% of those proceeds go into helping the sisters here survive,” said Deitrick, who is the board president of the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration’s foundation.

Mother Thomas is happy her art can help. She’s working now on a piece for Father John Valencheck’s church, St. Sebastian, in Akron.

He is also a fan.

“I was touched at how not only was she such a strong person of faith, but how that faith was expressed in her artwork,” Valencheck said.

For a church, these are more than just beautiful works that hang on walls.

“Because it's beautiful people will stop and listen,” he said.

Mother Thomas wants to make the most of that attention.

“It has to be something significant, something that will touch people’s hearts and that will make them mentally alert to what our faith really entails,” she said. 

Carrie Wise is the deputy editor of arts and culture at Ideastream Public Media.