“None can sense more deeply than you artists, ingenious creators of beauty that you are, something of
the pathos with which God at the dawn of creation looked upon the work of his hands.” (St. John Paul II)
Religious missionaries to Hawaii have been identified by their work as pastors, educators, healthcare workers, social workers, catechists and the like. For some, it was by responding to the Divine through the creative spirit moving within that helped them transform barren lava fields made fertile. As Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart said, “What a man takes in by contemplation, that he pours out in love.” These pages highlight some religious missionary artists of the past. They also introduce several contemporary ones, who like hidden olivine crystals embedded in today’s mission, continue to enrich people’s lives through the creative spirit.
- Marianist Brother Gabriel Bertram Bellinghausen (1849-1933), the first principal of Saint Louis College (now Saint Louis School), was also a renowned photographer. During his 22-year mission in Hawaii, the German-born religious brother captured hundreds of images on glass plates of native people, Marianist brothers, places and churches Oahu, Maui and Hawaii.
- Marianist Brother Nicholas Waldeck (1895-1979), at age 60, earned a master’s degree in art under the direction of famed muralist Jean Charlot. In 1959, the Honolulu-born Saint Louis College and Chaminade College art instructor painted the fresco, “The Lay Apostolate” on the wall of Chaminade’s Henry Hall. He was also known for his paintings of Hawaiian scenery.
- Franciscan Sister Antoinette Alameida (1912-2000), was known for her administrative savvy in rebuilding Sacred Hearts School in Lahaina after a fire, and also for her tasty sweetbread, fudge and pickled mango. The Maui-born nun also found time to paint island scenes of rushing waterfalls and serene mountains, artwork that decorates many Franciscan convents and schools.
- Sacred Hearts Sister Julie Louise Thevenin (1918-2016), was born in Honolulu and studied under the French Sisters of the Sacred Hearts. She was a teacher, Girl Scout leader, Sacred Heart Academy yearbook moderator and more. She painted the Stations of the Cross displayed at Regina Pacis Convent plus numerous small nature pieces that she sold at silent auctions.
- Franciscan Sister Wilma Halmasy (1921-2006) was born in Ohio. After serving in healthcare facilities in New York and Hawaii, she was assigned for 30 years to Bishop Home in Kalaupapa as a nurse and later as hospital supervisor. A sculptor, Sister Wilma made a bust of St. Marianne Cope. She also wrote the book “Letters from the Land of Long Farewells: Kalaupapa, Molokai.”
- Dominican Sister Milla Derby (1926-2015), before becoming an artist-in-residence in her native Honolulu, she taught music and art across the country. She specialized in using vibrant Anil dyes on silk to capture the beauty of Hawaii’s flora and animals of the sea and sky. Her work can be found in private collections, at First Hawaiian Bank and in Nahru Towers.
- Maryknoll Father Joseph W. Matheis (1928-2002), designed and helped build and furnish with original metal and woodwork the stunning, round Ascension Mission Church in Puako on the Big Island. During his long mission in Hawaii, the Kentucky-born priest with a bachelor of arts degree from St. Ambrose University, also crafted elegantly-shaped tables from tree stumps.
- Marianist Brother James Roberts (1931- 2007) was a Los Angeles-born visual artist who designed not only drama sets for school productions, but also the Mystical Rose Oratory on the Saint Louis/Chaminade campus in 1966. As a painter, his repertoire included landscapes, abstracts and portraits. Many of his pictures are on display in offices at Chaminade University.
- Franciscan Sister Dativa Padilla (1933-2003), a nurse in Kalaupapa for 26 years, also enjoyed painting, stitchery crafts and ceramics. Her pieces were made available in the community gift shop. In a 1997 interview with the Honolulu Star Bulletin, the Kauai-born nun said, “I don’t have time to get bored. Work keeps me interested and my prayer life keeps me going.”
- Sacred Hearts Sister Maria Gertrude Schroeder (1923-2014) was assigned as the art teacher at Sacred Hearts Academy after being missioned in Germany. For an art class at the University of Hawaii, Sister Maria Gertrude, also known as Sister Benigna (Blessed), painted the history of the Sacred Hearts Congregation in the islands from Father Bachelot to Father Damien.
Porcelain painter, poet
Carmelite Sister Mary Therese Veronica, growing up in New Jersey and North Carolina, she remembers summer playground activities in ceramics, plaster of Paris and basket weaving. At the University of Hawaii, she took classes in drawing and painting. As a Hawaii Carmelite, she continues to grow in her painting skills under the direction of artist Theresa Todd who has been mentoring the sisters for more than 20 years in the use of paint on porcelain.
“I try to focus on sending graces out to others as I quiet my mind and concentrate on the image, flowers or the Madonna that I am painting,” she said. “I hope others can come to appreciate more nature and the love of God.”
Sister Therese is also a poet. She has written a booklet, “New Life,” and another manuscript about the four seasons. “Poems help me to adore God, to focus on him,” she said. “I hope they have the same effect on others.”
Chinese brush artist
Carmelite Sister Agnella of the Child Jesus and the Holy Spirit has been interested in Chinese brush painting since high school. From her homeland of Hong Kong, she continued to study oriental brush painting in Taiwan. She especially enjoys painting bamboo and birds.
Of her art, she said, “All arts are prayers. When shared with others, they help us to draw closer to God. That is communication, contemplation. Whether the medium be of prose or poetry, dreams, drama, dance, a life of solitude, the songs we sing and share or listen to, the sacramental life … all are prayer, which sometimes leads others to the transcendent. For me, painting is like a vacation with the Lord.”
Upon the prompting of a convent visitor, some of Sr. Agnella’s art have been printed in a book.
Oriental brush painter
Sister of Divine Providence Young Hee Benedicta Ha is an architect and multi-media artist. In 2006, Bishop Larry Silva blessed her wall-sized work “Peace” in St. Pius X Church in Manoa. Using rice paper, paper mache and paint, the artwork depicts St. Andrew DaeGon Kim and his 103 companions who were martyred for their faith. Of “Peace,” she Sister Benedicta said, “May peace and hope come upon us all. Here, today and beyond, and to the whole world.”
Born in South Korea, the daughter of an artist father, she received degrees in oriental art from Sungshin Women’s University in South Korea. Following her first showing, “Art Exhibition of Four Sisters” in 1965, she continued her training in Rome. Sister Benedicta has been invited to exhibit her work in galleries around the world.
“We are the gifts of God,” she said. “Through art we share that beautiful heart with each other, becoming more like God’s image. Through my ministry in art, I try to help others see the beauty of things in every moment. That through us, all will come to know Christ’s peace and serenity.”
Sister Benedicta has taught oriental brush painting at Chaminade University of Honolulu since 2006.
Franciscan Sister Grace Capellas grew up in the little plantation of Hakalau on the Big Island surrounded by professional musicians and performing artists. At St. Joseph School in Hilo, she said, “I went all out for it — singing and performing and enjoying every moment of it.”
With her Filipino girlfriends, she sang all kinds of classical operatic songs for a Filipino radio program, even though no one knew she wasn’t Filipino.
As a religious sister in the performing arts, she often receives spiritual requests. Sometimes opera singers will ask, “Sister, pray for this, pray for that.” It has become for her ministry.
“The arts are a means to touching the Divine,” she said. “Just look at Saint Francis, the troubadour and the special connection there. Thus, if there is a need, and you have the gift, do not bury it. You need to use it.”
And she uses more than her voice. In 2016, she won a Hawaii State Theater Council Po‘okela Award for Costume Design in the Chaminade University production of “First Date.”
Painter, liturgical dancer
Maryknoll Sister Yoo Soo Kim, once while preparing for an exhibition, wanted to include a particular painting, but the painting told her “it was not ready.” So she continued to work on it. When it was finally displayed, a woman viewer said she wanted to buy it. She said she had gone through a difficult time the year before and the painting spoke to her. Sister Yoo Soo said that extra year of work on the painting infused it with extra prayer for whoever was to receive it.
Growing up in the small country town of Ko Chang, Korea, Sister Yoo Soo absorbed knowledge, love and respect of nature from her mother through family picnics and mountain climbing.
Today, of her ministry as a contemplative artist, photographer and liturgical dancer, she said, “What I learned from the process of my art is to surrender to the beauty of all of creation.”
“In my studio every morning, I bow deeply to God saying ‘kamsahamnida’ — ‘thank you’ — offer incense, and have a cup of tea. When I am creating, I really go deeply into a lot of things. Gradually, everything disappears until it is only God and me. When you enter the dwelling place, it is like a mystical experience, a communion with God, where I become an instrument of God’s message through the creation.”
Author, visual artist
Dominican Sister Malia Dominica Wong: I know God has a sense of humor. I identify as a professor at Chaminade University of Honolulu. But, on the side, God has been using me in ways I still sometimes find hard to fathom. Was it the inculturation in the arts and creative writing exposed to and fostered through my elementary education at St. Anthony School in Kailua and Punahou? Or, just my being infused with the DNA of the Kailua sunrises, turtles and sandturtles, awe of finding glass balls or a seashell along the sands of my birth?
In 2009, the Hawaii Catholic Herald asked if I would be a blogger along the road through Belgium to Rome for the canonization of Father Damien of Molokai. Carefully crafting my posts with prose, poetry and photography, I wanted readers to be able to feel, taste, hear and be awed as if they were really present there. As news of Mother Marianne’s canonization was announced in 2012, I got the inspiration to co-author “A Walk With St. Marianne Cope of Molokai” Reflections and Inspirations from Her Life for Our Living” with Franciscan Sister Davilyn Ah Chick.
The following year I asked God, “What next?” unbelieving the book was completed in one year. The idea, “Write the icons — the Saints of Hawaii, Damien and Marianne together,” arose. The rest of my work as a muralist in the Philippines and a storyboard artist for the “All Things Marianist” video series on YouTube and more, is just my continual response to God’s “What’s next?”
Franciscan Sister Marie Jose Romano explains, “I am not a composer. But as Mother Marianne was about to be canonized, I found myself not being able to sleep one night. In my head I heard her voice saying, ‘Make me a song. Do it. Do it.’ I did not know what to think. But, because I am proud of her, I got up and started to write about her virtues. I played the words until the poem was done.”
Sister Marie Jose grew up in Kalihi. She has been singing since first grade in the St. Anthony School children’s choir. As an adjunct professor at Chaminade University of Honolulu, she teaches English. Of singing and teaching, she said, “I can sing and read notes, but not put them together with music as a song. Words are my forte.”
Mother Marianne, nonetheless, used her to write the lyrics to the song, “The Heart of Our Saint Marianne.” The text speaks of her virtues of integrity, justice, compassion and more. Collaborating with musician Robert Mondoy, the music took form. The hymn has been sung on various occasions surrounding St. Marianne Cope’s canonization and after.
Sacred Hearts Sister Dorothy Santos, as an educator, wanted to keep the memories of the first Sacred Hearts Sisters to the islands alive. So, with a few friends, she created a mosaic of the first Sacred Hearts Convent on Fort Street, near the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace.
Since that time other convents, stories and people have been memorialized in tile. A number of her mosaics featuring the Sacred Hearts have made their way to other islands and across the globe to missions in India, Philippines and Japan.
“The mosaics are something I always wanted to do,” said the Paia, Maui-born sister. “If they help to bring people closer to God, and be inspired by the sisters who came all the way from France not knowing what they were coming to, I think the work is worthwhile.”
Composer, metal sculptor
Sacred Hearts Father Albert Garcia, who was born in Honokaa on the Big Island, is a talented musician and liturgical composer. Some of his songs are still sung at Sacred Heart Church in Waianae and at St. Rita Church in Nanakuli.
Many years ago, responding to the need to decorate the church with fresh designs to match the liturgical calendar, he made banners of felt and other materials to enhance the church environment.
It was not until his superior commissioned him to create the Last Supper in metal, that he was formally recognized as an artist. Drawing out the designs, he was aided by Sacred Hearts Brother Oden Leo Vendiola (1929-2016) of Waipahu in the metal cutting and sculpting. Brother Leo had been an auto mechanic for the military before entering the congregation. The sculptures were made in the workshop at Sacred Heart Community Bethany.
Father Garcia’s work includes an elaborate tabletop candelabra and a wall piece depicting communion.
Peace artist, paintbrush artist
Franciscan Sister Vergilia Jim was born in Wailuku, Maui. She taught at Sacred Hearts School in Lahaina and at St. Joseph School in Hilo before spending more than 20 years on the Mainland where she co-founded the Oneness in Peace Spiritual Center with Claire Langie in Germantown, New York. She also co-authored the “Peace Begins with Me” holistic orientation program for educators in peace education used in Hawaii and elsewhere.
At the Spiritual Center, Sister Vergilia taught about the beautiful interrelationship between nature, man and God and inspired others, in respect for self and others, in preventing violence. She saw, as St. Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, that everyone has different talents that should be used for the greatest good of all, no matter how insignificant those talents may seem. As God has given each one of us gifts according to the Spirit, it is our responsibility to take action to effect the lives of others.
Musician, floral designer
Sacred Hearts Brother Richard Kupo, who helps run the novitiate program for Sacred Hearts Fathers and Brothers, was born on Maui into a musical family. His father Leo Kupo performed with the Danny Kapoi Trio and the Rhythm Makers. Brother Richard performs as a singer and a musician with friends in a group called Heeia.
As a floral designer, he has created lobby displays for the Outrigger and Prince Kuhio Beach hotels in Waikiki. His Christmas decorations and wreaths have been sold to raise funds for the Sacred Hearts Missions.
Each year on St. Damien’s feast day, May 10, you will find a lush, tropical arrangement created by Brother Richard at the foot of the Damien Statue at the Hawaii State Capitol.
Marianist Brother Gary Morris, as a child in San Francisco, used to build his own theaters and do puppet shows in his backyard to raise money for the missions. It was in his blood. His grandparents met each other while doing vaudeville side shows.
When Brother Gary was in the fifth grade at St. Agnes School, the associate pastor asked him to write a play about the school’s namesake, St. Agnes. That was his first real play. He directed the rest of his classmates in the performance. When he became a Marianist brother, the community continued to encourage him to grow and use his talents in the performing arts.
Of his work, he said, “Before each performance, we begin with prayer. I believe it is a gift from God being able to perform, to direct, and to help others in seeing their potential. It really is a ministry to bring out the beauty of God’s gifts in them. It is a gift given me. It is really a blessing.”