The Nativity Mosaic

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Our Mission Advancement Department sent out a card this year featuring a mosaic that was designed by Sister Mary Alice Schnur, who died earlier this year.  The mosaic intrigued us, so we sought out the story behind the artwork.

In the early 1960’s, Sister Mary Alice Schnur, then an art teacher at St. Benedict College on Monastery Immaculate Conception campus, began a project to design and assemble a mosaic that would eventually be used as a backdrop behind the nativity scene in the monastery church for many years.

Sister Mary Alice’s art students and numerous sisters worked to piece together the approximately 6 foot by 7 foot mosaic.  The project was laid out in the art room in “college hall,” part of St. Benedict Hall which is now part of the sisters’ residence, and sisters and students were invited to work on the project.

Sister Karlene Sensmeier, who was a student in one of Sister Mary Alice’s art classes during that time, recalled glazing the tiles that would be used in the mosaic and then cutting them into squares after they were fired.  The “true art students” cut the tiles into pieces that were not squares so that they would fit in the spaces that needed to be filled.  “Only Sister Mary Alice was allowed to work on the areas that were done in gold.”

Isaiah, one of the two prophets depicted in this mosaic, is a major feature in the Advent liturgies.

The mosaic became a project for many people living and working on “the hill.”  Sister Joella Kidwell, who was teaching at Academy Immaculate Conception, stated, “Many of the faculty, as well as other sisters, I think, helped.  A number of us worked together to paste tiles on the surface that Sister Mary Alice had designed.” Sister Kathryn Huber added, “Sister Mary Alice was our formation director and we were invited to help.  All the tiles were laid out; all we had to do was paste them in.”

“It was common knowledge that the mosaic was in process and that all were invited to come and put some pieces in.  The pieces of glass were there and Sister Mary Alice just stayed in the background while we chose the colors and pieces to glue on,” shared Sister Mary Longtine.

“Also, the room was not locked and was open to any who wanted to work on their own.  I do recall coming back a few days later and that she, or someone else more talented, put in the faces, etc., and also that the pieces we less artistic ones put in remained where we put them.”

In reflecting on working on the mosaic, Sister Michelle Mohr noted that it was a fun project and that she enjoyed placing the tiles.  Sister Betty Drewes stated, “I enjoyed working on it very much; however, it was very time-consuming and very detailed.”

John the Baptist
John the Baptist, the other prophet featured in this mosaic, was the “voice crying in the desert,” telling people to prepare the way of the Lord.

Sister Mary Philip Berger added, “I couldn’t figure out, really, what we were doing.  I couldn’t see the bigger picture that Sister Mary Alice saw.  I think only Sister Mary Alice knew what it was going to look like in the end.  Sister Mary Alice always saw the larger picture of everything.”

While many people worked on it and not all could imagine what the final product would look like, “In the end, we could all claim a piece of this larger piece of artwork that Sister Mary Alice envisioned,” stated Sister Mary Dominic Frederick.

Sister Kathryn Huber was happy that she was able to work on the project. “When the mosaic was finished, it looked good.  I was proud that some of my pieces were in there.”

Sister Mary Alice’s love of God, of art, her students, and her community, led to the completion of a project that encompassed many things that were important to her.  As Sister Mary Longtine looked back on the process and saw the way in which it all came together, she commented, “Now I recognize the respect and trust she had for us.”