The Priest, the Sister, the Statue — and a Louisiana Connection

Catholics know and love Our Lady of Fatima. We are familiar with the miraculous happenings of 1917 when Our Blessed Lady appeared to the three shepherd children at the Cova da Iria near Fatima, Portugal. We know the promises of Our Lady, we know the prayers that she taught the children, Lucia, Jacinta and little Francisco. We know of the great “Miracle of the Sun” on October 13 of that same year when the sun “danced” in the sky and 70,000 people were eyewitnesses. We are all familiar with the typical depiction of the Pilgrim Virgin statue with her stately crown and satin cloak, even with the “Tuy Vision” of 1929 when Our Lady appeared to Lucia at the convent in Tuy, Spain. This is the painting which will grace the wall behind the altar in our new chapel here at Saint Benedict Center.

However, do we know of the American Dominican priest, Father Thomas McGlynn and the statue he sculpted at the direction of Sister Lucia? Have we seen how different Our Lady looks in this statue – very different from the one we are most familiar with? Do we know the whereabouts of these depictions today? And, just what is this Louisiana connection?

 

The Priest

Thomas McGlynn was born in 1906. He began sculpting at the age of four. In 1925, he was ordained a Dominican priest and sent to teach at the seminary. Realizing his talents as a sculptor, the Order reassigned him as their official sculptor. He was associated with Providence College in Rhode Island and began his prodigious output there. When he was sent to Chicago in 1938, he participated in an outreach program to poor Blacks of the city and became a vocal advocate for fair treatment for these unfortunates. The story goes that a bishop who was visiting from South Carolina made somewhat disparaging comments about the Black people of that state. Father McGlynn took great exception, and imprudently corrected the bishop publicly. Although the bishop was quick in offering an apology, Father McGlynn found himself reassigned to Saint Helena Parish in Amite, Louisiana, an area where all the Catholic churches in that civil parish of Tangipahoa were staffed by Dominicans. As it turned out, he greatly loved the country people in this rural parish of Louisiana. At the time, during World War II, there were few Catholics in this heavily Southern Baptist area and none of them were Black. While Father McGlynn was pastor there, he sculpted a gorgeous life-sized crucifix that hung behind the altar. I saw this beautiful piece of art myself. Being made of plaster, it was beginning to crumble at that time. In the years since, it has been restored and holds a place of honor in the parish complex. The Catholics of Saint Helena Church in Amite are rightly proud of their connection to this talented Dominican.

 

The Sister

The Sister of our title is none other than Sister Lucia, the oldest of the Fatima seers. When Father McGlynn met her at the Dorothean convent in Portugal, she was known as Irma Dores. “Irma” is Portuguese for “sister.” “Dores” means “Sorrows” – a common female first name in Spanish and Portuguese. (In English, we would say “Delores” or “Dolores.”) The priest had been commissioned to sculpt a statue of Our Lady of Fatima. He had already done a preliminary one based on his own idea of what she may have looked like – a small model later to be made into a five and a half foot statue. Traveling to Portugal 1948-1949, he found the country undergoing an unusually cold and wet winter for that normally sunny land.

Of course, he had to secure the permission of both the Bishop of Leiria, where Fatima is located, and the mother superior of Irma Dores’ convent in order to see and speak to the seer. Both were very gracious, allowing him to interview and photograph Lucia. Better than that, he was given permission to do the actual sculpting at the convent with Lucia at his side making corrections and suggestions the entire time he worked on the statue. Although she was a holy and humble woman, she was a stern taskmistress who insisted the hands be positioned just so, the tunic fall exactly the way she remembered, the star placed in the proper spot on the tunic, the ball of light around her neck reaching almost to her waist. There would be no hair showing, nor would she be standing on a cloud, for her blessed bare feet actually touched the leaves of the small holm oak upon which she appeared. The Heart of Our Lady surrounded by thorns was cast separately and moved several times at Lucia’s insistence. Time and again Lucia forced Father to make small and big changes because she wanted it to be exactly as she remembered from the first apparition thirty years before. Feeling very comfortable with the priest, Lucia even attempted to sculpt the head and shoulders of the Virgin alongside Father as he worked. Not satisfied with the results, she chucked the damp plaster back in to the washtub from whence it came.

Several people acted as interpreters between Father and Irma Dores, she not speaking English and he, knowing just a few words of Portuguese. There were two Portuguese/British girls at the sisters’ school and a number of English friends locally, one of whom was actually a nun (“Mother”) at the convent, Mother King. Father often made Lucia giggle at his awkward attempts to communicate in her native language. In turn, he taught her a few words of English. What a great privilege had been bestowed upon him to work with the woman who saw and spoke to Our Lady!

 

The Statue

The first thing we notice about this statue is its simplicity. The clothing is not flowing, there is no crown or cloud. The countenance is serious and the eyes cast down. Her hands are in what appear to be a teaching position. She is all white except for the star and the pendant of light around her neck, both of which are yellow. The stark whiteness was the only way to depict Lucia’s description that she was “made of light,” and Lucia herself insisted upon it.

Father McGlynn, in his book Vision of Fatima, explains that “the modeling of the statue began on Saturday afternoon, February 8, and was completed at noon on Friday, the fourteenth. Irma Dores first came to criticize on Monday morning and afternoon, and, thereafter, every morning and afternoon until the work was done.” Father had already spent several days interviewing her, which made her uncomfortable, but she really enjoyed the modeling and had no qualms about insisting on the most minute changes. Our Lady’s tiny Rosary was made by Lucia while Father McGlynn worked the clay. When both were satisfied and it came time to cast the statue, Irma Dores took herself to the chapel to pray for the success of the procedure, for it was a delicate operation and the statue could be damaged in the process. Her prayers were successful, and the finished model was perfect.

Father McGlynn always thought of the little statue as “our statue,” for it was the result of both his talents and Lucia’s direction.

It was at this time that the large Basilica at Fatima was under construction. Father McGlynn hoped the Bishop of Leiria would be agreeable to placing the fifteen foot-high statue of his and Lucia’s version of Our Lady of Fatima in the outside niche of the building now under way. The Bishop replied that another sculptor was already working on a version of Our Lady for that niche, but perhaps they could find an inside niche for his. Several days later, on a picture-taking mission to Fatima, a young messenger from the Bishop interrupted Father in his work saying that the Bishop wanted to see him. The Bishop had changed his mind and now wanted Father McGlynn’s statue to occupy the niche over the great front doors of the Basilica. Father was incredulous and deliriously happy. This enormous church would accommodate eight thousand worshippers and would be the focal point for pilgrims visiting Fatima. Needless to say, he was tremendously pleased.

Interestingly, a smaller version of this same statue, twelve feet tall, was commissioned by Cardinal Cushing of Boston and was placed in a niche outside the Cardinal’s residence in that city.

Father McGlynn sculpted many other statues, most of them religious. One of his most striking is the seven and a half-foot-tall sculpture of Saint Martin de Porres. It is rugged, but beautiful, just as one would think what that holy man would be like. It was from his knowledge of Saint Martin’s work with the Black slaves in South America that Father developed his empathy for the poor Blacks of our own country. Father Thomas McGlynn died of cancer in 1977 at the age of 71. His papers are mostly archived at Providence College in Rhode Island and many are available on the Internet.

Our Lady of Fatima, pray for us. Holy Lucia, pray for us. Blessed Jacinta and Francisco Marto, pray for us.

 

Acknowledgement: I would like to thank my dear friend in Amite, Louisiana, Claudette Hayden, for the “lead” on this article. Many thanks, also, to Mr. Greg Esteven of Amite who lectures on Our Lady of Fatima, Father McGlynn and his story.

  • Fascinating story. I wish that there were a photo of the two of them, sculpting together.