Sr. Thomasita Fessler

"Nun still nourishes the creative spirit At 83, Sister Thomasita continues to teach, paint and sculpt"

by Maureen Dietzel Mertens (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; 18 Jan 1996)

She wears the brown habit of the order of the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi with a string of plain brown beads around her neck and a brown scarf covering her hair.

She's a teacher, painter, sculptor and nun. She's known around the world. As she walks through her art gallery and school, at the former St.Mary's Academy in the Bay View neighborhood of Milwaukee, it's the attention to detail that is most impressive, from the arrangement of beautiful art to the comfortable and disciplined look of her own studio.

But, perhaps most of all, it's in the classroom studio where her students' art is displayed that one begins to understand who this woman is.

"This is an oasis where the artist in each of us can be nourished," explains Sister M. Thomasita Fessler, 83, founder and director of Studio San Damiano.

"For little children, art is their language. I tell them they eat with their mouths to nourish their bodies and they must eat with their eyes to nourish their souls."

When she was 35 in 1947, Sister Thomasita was appointed chairwoman of the Cardinal Stritch College art department. At the time, the college was at St. Mary's Academy; in 1962 the school moved to Fox Point.

In 1989, college administrators suggested she retire, something she wasn't ready to do. She was urged by friends and former students to continue her work, so she moved her studio and school to its present location.

"I've come full circle," she says. "Not only was my first school here, but I grew up blocks from here, and I entered the St. Francis Convent just next door."

That was in 1929 when she was 17. As a young postulant she attended Milwaukee State Teachers College, graduating in 1935 and earned her master's from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1946. She began San Damiano the next year.

When she entered the convent, her mother kept a diary in which she told of the world the nun had left. Her mother sent it to her in touching and creative ways.

"Sometimes she would send it as if it were a bouquet of flowers by rolling up the pages as stems or sometimes she made the pages into candles," Sister Thomasita explains.

Sister Thomasita's work, her carvings, paintings, sculptures are found in galleries, churches and collections around the world. She continues to paint and is excited about new lithographs of her work available through the studio.

With all her honors and awards, Sister Thomasita is most proud of receiving the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee award as a distinguished alumna in 1992 an award, she points out, previously won by the late Milwaukee-born Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. "The person who nominated me was Dennis McBride," she says. "He was one of my students when the studio was in the attic next door." Dennis McBride, 42, Wauwatosa, a supervisory trial attorney for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and on the board of trustees of the UWM Alumni Association, remembers Sister Thomasita and attending school in the attic.

"I remember her style of religious art," he said. "As a little Catholic boy it was impressive. And I remember her as a very kind woman. I don't know how much you take with you as a 7 year old, but I think it was the appreciation for art that I remember the most." Another thing he took with him is the angel he made all those years ago. His mother saved it and displayed it each Christmas.

The nun is now traveling with a tour group in Guatemala, her 43rd art tour. When she returns, the next series of children and adult art classes will begin on February 3, [1996].

"We are all born creators and artists. There is uniqueness in each one of us," she said. "I tell my students everything they see in the world in nature is God-made. I tell them nature is God's art and art is man's nature."

For information on gallery hours and art classes call 481-7992.

Copyright 1996 Journal Sentinel Inc.