Joy reverberating for 2,000 years
By TERESA MALCOLM
For stained glass artist Lea Koesterer, the Visitation is not merely confined to that isolated biblical moment when Mary and Elizabeth meet. Rather, its joy ripples throughout history.
Its kinetic, Koesterer told NCR. It spins off into a larger world -- to all those who proclaim Jesus as savior as Elizabeth did, to the work of the international order of nuns who took the event as their namesake.
The Visitation order operates six schools in the United States, including Visitation Academy in Koesterers hometown of St. Louis.
To capture the events ever-expanding significance, a multitude of colors radiate from Mary and Elizabeth as they greet each other in Visitation, the stained glass window Koesterer created for Visitation Academy in 2000.
Koesterers daughter, Virginia, was a junior at the academy in 1998 when the St. Louis-based Visitation nuns began their search for an artist to design a stained glass window for the new main entrance. The window was part of a major building project for the school, which enrolls about 650 students in an elementary school and a high school for girls and in a co-ed Montessori preschool.
Koesterers daughter urged her to apply, but Koesterer was too busy with a mosaic for the St. Louis History Museum to prepare a portfolio. So Virginia took it upon herself to assemble photographs of her mothers work and get them to the right people at school.
By the time Koesterer had finished the mosaic at the museum, the Visitation sisters, who live in a monastery attached to the school, asked her to come in and do a presentation about her work. They told me my style was more reflective of who they were -- more feminine and organic than other portfolios theyd seen, said the artist, who has worked out of her own studio, Lea Koesterer Glass & Mosaic Art Inc., since 1976.
At their meeting, the nuns asked Koesterer to come up with a concept for the window, and Koesterer asked them for their own thoughts about the 400-year-old order, founded by Ss. Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal in 17th-century- France, and about its charism.
After that conversation, the artist immersed herself in research, meditated and prayed.
I imagined myself as part of the greeting, feeling as Elizabeth might have, as Mary might have, said Koesterer, a parishioner at St. Francis Xavier Church, a church staffed by Jesuits on the campus of St. Louis University.
What I felt was uncontained joy and praise for the bountifulness of the Lord. Then it dawned on me: That joy has been reverberating throughout the past 2,000 years because we still feel it today, and it is spreading far beyond the two individuals who first expressed it.
She created an image in watercolor, with spreading colors of many hues representing the richness of creation, and a triangle between Mary and Elizabeths face symbolizing God and their shared devotion.
Koesterer said she was nervous about showing it to the nuns, but her daughter assured her they would love it. Virginia was right.
She unveiled this picture of the window, and we all just gasped, said Visitation Sr. Anne Madeleine Godefroy, superior of the St. Louis monastery. Our community is never unanimous about anything. We voted on it and it was unanimous. We were so delighted.
Our charism is one of gentleness, humility, joy and optimism, Godefroy said. When we saw the movement, the joy and the color Thats who we are. Its a young woman going to visit an older woman, which is humility. Gentleness is the way they greeted each other, with so much joy, almost like a dance.
School was in session in the spring of 2000 when Koesterer spent two days at the academy making enlargements of the drawing and answering the girls questions about her work, and in September 2000 when the window was installed.
According to Godefroy, some students would say, When we come back in 10 years, we can say we were in school when they put the window in.
For both the all-girl school and the monastery, a relationship between two women, with God at the core, is an important visible symbol, said Visitation Sr. Mary Grace McCormack, a member of the community. It is very much part of our charism -- women ministering to women.
It is also an important symbol for the church as a whole, McCormack said. We talk about giving women their due. Heres a readymade situation in the gospels, where Mary is carrying Jesus and Elizabeth proclaims her the Mother of God.
Its a mystery, and when people in the church pay more attention to it, they might have a little different take on womens place in the church and community, in mission, in proclaiming the Lord.
Koesterer, 52, does not always have the opportunity to work on such a faith-oriented subject. She has to work within guidelines provided by her various clients. But that itself is a spiritual exercise, she told NCR, to see through another persons eyes.
If I can put myself in someone elses shoes, it enables me to satisfy their needs, but it also enlarges my own personal experience in dealing with people, understanding them and being compassionate and reaching out to them.
There are so many people I do not understand. I do not understand destructive people -- not even when they knock down a building in St. Louis in the process of urban renewal, let alone what is happening in Afghanistan. I like to bring whatever harmony and peace I can find to people.
Koesterers work is in public buildings, churches and homes in St. Louis, where she lives with her husband, Terry Werner, and her son, Duncan, 15. Virginia, now 19, is studying architecture at college in Lawrence, Kan.
Im contributing to the artwork that is the city, Koesterer said, and I hope I can bring some joy to someones otherwise drab life.
Teresa Malcolm is NCRs news editor. Her e-mail address is email@example.com
National Catholic Reporter, December 21, 2001