“I think it was the joy that the sisters had that attracted me to becoming a Franciscan,” says Sister Jane Mary Sorosiak, OSF. “Franciscan sisters taught at my grade school—St. Hedwig in Toledo, Ohio—and we not only saw them in the classroom, but when we would also see them after school, at activities, in church, or out in the community, they were joyous,” says Sister Jane Mary, who turned 93 on January 14.
Sister Jane Mary has been spreading that same joy for more than six decades through her service and art. Though she had considered a vocation as a youngster, Sister Jane Mary didn’t enter the convent while in high school as many girls her age did. After graduating from high school, she went on to Mary Manse College in Toledo, Ohio, and, after obtaining a bachelor’s degree, she taught for several years.
“It was when I was 24 that I gave serious thought to a vocation,” Sister Jane Mary recalls. “In high school, I was taught by Ursuline Sisters, and I kept in touch with some of them. Sister Blanche said to me, ‘Joan [that was my given name], we think you have a vocation.’ I replied that I was thinking of joining the Sylvania Franciscans, and she said simply: ‘No matter. Just answer the call.’”
When Sister Jane Mary announced her plans, she recalled that her mother cried and her father said: “You know you don’t have to enter the convent. You can just get an apartment.” Sister Jane Mary had an older sister, now deceased, who was married and had three children. “My friends weren’t shocked when I said I was going to be a nun; they sort of suspected my plans, but still it was hard leaving home,” she says.
Sister Jane Mary professed her final vows in 1958 and taught grade school for a few years. She earned a master’s degree in English from Xavier University and an additional master’s degree in art from Bowling Green State University. She taught English and art at Cardinal Stritch High School in Oregon, Ohio, for 14 years. “I enjoyed every subject I taught, but I particularly enjoyed English because I liked how art often meshed with literature,” says Sister Jane Mary.
She then joined the faculty at Lourdes University, which was founded by the Sylvania Franciscans, and was assistant professor of art for 28 years. Sister Jane Mary taught many subjects during her tenure, among them art history, watercolors, drawing, oil painting, and sculpture. But it is her ceramic murals that have gained her the most fame.
“My first mural was a 40-foot-tall ceramic mural of Christ for the Franciscan Campus Center at Lourdes University. Our Mother Superior thought we needed more than a plain brick wall and decided to put a mural there and gave me the project. I did a lot of praying about that project,” says Sister Jane Mary, who, with the assistance of another sister and a technical advisor, installed the mural after two years of working on it.
Her first commission came from admirers of that work. “The local Greek Orthodox Church saw the mural—and they had some icons that were peeling—so they asked if we could create them in ceramics, as they are more durable,” says Sister Jane Mary, who never seeks commissions. “My commissions come by word of mouth.” To date, she estimates that she has completed more than 200 works, and they can be found throughout the country.
Her artistic process begins with a visit to the place where the work will be installed and a consultation with the Holy Spirit. “I visit the place of commission and study the space and ponder what the purpose of the place is,” says Sister Jane Mary. “I mostly do religious pieces or ones that inspire a feeling like hope for a cancer center. I pray, and the Holy Spirit inspires me. It’s thrilling to see how it guides me. In fact, sometimes, I’ll go back and look at a piece I’ve done in the past and think, This was not me at work here. If I were to grade this in one of my classes, I’d have to say good work. But it’s not me; it’s the Holy Spirit working through me.”
She does a lot of sketching of ideas until she and whoever commissioned the work are pleased with the design. She then draws the design to scale and enlarges it to the actual size using a projector. Next, she etches the design into clay and cuts the design into tiles, which are then fired in a kiln and glazed. The tiles are numbered so that the installer can recreate the design on the wall. The mural is finished with grout.
Sister Jane Mary doesn’t have a favorite piece. “Every piece is my favorite, or I work on it until it is my favorite,” she says. “If I don’t like a piece, neither will the person who commissioned it. For instance, an organization once commissioned a piece for the campus and suggested a woman crying, and I just felt that wasn’t the feeling we wanted to inspire. I suggested a different design, Our Lady of the Sign, which is the Blessed Mother and in the circle in front of her is the child Jesus. It refers to Isaiah 7:14, ‘Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel.’ It is a common icon in the Eastern Church. I suggested that, and they were convinced that it was a better subject.”
Sister Jane Mary admires the artist El Greco. “He began as an icon writer, and you can see that training in his works. They are deeply spiritual.” When asked if there is a subject that she hasn’t done that she would like to do, Sister Jane Mary says that she has been mulling over a design. “I would like to create a Cosmic Christ, with planets and stars to reflect his second coming,” she says. “It would have to be quite large to evoke glory, majesty, and power.”
Since her retirement from teaching, she has been the director of the Alverno Studio on campus since 2004. Several Sylvania Franciscan Sisters work alongside her there, creating works for the sisters’ gift shop, All Good Things Art and Gifts (AllGoodThingsOSF.org). When she’s not creating commissioned works, Sister Jane Mary is in the studio, making tiles to sell in the gift shop. At 93, she says her knees aren’t so good, but she has a sidekick, Sister Magdala Davlin, who also creates pieces in the studio and who is a registered nurse. “She looks after me and has fixed me up with a walker to help me get around,” says Sister Jane Mary. “I have been fortunate. Our foundress, Mother Adelaide, was a bit of an artist herself, and she thought it important to surround ourselves with art and culture.”
In fact, she says her Catholic faith has helped to foster her talent. “The Church has always embraced beauty and the arts. A cousin once said to me, ‘You’d be a millionaire if you weren’t a nun.’ And I told her: ‘If I weren’t a nun, I would have never been afforded these opportunities. Our community has always supported me.’”
When asked what part of the Franciscan charism speaks most to her, Sister Jane Mary says: “What I love most about the Franciscans is the spirit of joy that they bring to service. And I’d have to say gratitude. I’m grateful that I’ve been able to bring joy to others with my work.”