Sister is busy.
She typically is, of course, in the way that religious women often seem to be. But today, at midday on a Friday in spring, Sister Ann Therese Kelly has more going on than usual.
A window is being born.
In a stairwell at Villa Maria College on Pine Ridge Road, Sister Kelly watches as the finishing touches are put on the installation of her newest work of art.
The 16-foot window is so freshly fixed in place that some of the caulking is still damp.
“There it is!” Sister Kelly exults, gazing at the window.
Not that it wasn’t tricky. Specialists from a Pittsburgh glass company, Hunt Studio, told her that some of the swooping pieces of colored glass required leads in lengths as long as 6 feet.
“That makes it hard,” said one of the installers.
“As the artist, I have to stick to my style,” said Sister Kelly, smiling,
Her newest window has a name: “The Song of Creation.” It springs – as so much of her work always has – from Sister Kelly’s love for St. Francis of Assisi, and in particular for his poem “Canticle of the Sun.”
“Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures, especially through my lord Brother Sun …”
To Sister Kelly, the poem by the saint – a celebration of the earth and its creatures, in relation to the God who created them – is about more than joy over the wonders of nature.
It’s about transformation of self, and the world around us.
“Do you know what alchemy is?” asked the 58-year-old religious, her gray eyes bright behind metal-framed glasses, a wooden cross on a cord around her neck. “It’s changing properties of lead into gold. They tried for years.”
“But spiritually, it means we can change ourselves,” she said. “We can become better than ourselves.”
As an artist, Sister Kelly has spent her life pursuing alchemies. Starting with simple materials – colored glass, heat, labor – she makes art that hangs in witness to her vision all over Western New York and elsewhere in the country.
You may have seen her work in churches in Derby, Elma or Buffalo. You may have seen it in the Junior League Show House, or in private homes. Now, at what may be the peak of her career, she has opened a studio in Buffalo – as a way of teaching others what she has learned.
Sister Kelly, you see, knows transformations. Her life has been full of them.
Born in Niagara Falls, Ann Catherine Kelly grew up in a farmhouse in Wheatfield with her parents and four siblings. Her father, a chemist who worked at DuPont, was a musician in his spare time, and taught the young girl how to play banjo and guitar.
“I bought my first guitar before I entered the convent,” Sister Kelly said. “It was the era. The Singing Nun was really big. ‘Dominique, –nique …’ ” She grinned.
She attended Bishop Gibbons High School, graduating in 1972. She spent a year at Niagara County Community College. Then, at 19, she entered the Felician order, the same order of religious women who taught her in high school.
When Sister Kelly entered the order, she dropped the middle name she had received at birth – Catherine was her mother’s name – and instead chose “Therese” as part of her new name. That choice amazed some members of her family even more than her decision to enter the convent – though the young sister didn’t find that out right away.
It was years later that someone told Sister Kelly what the surprise was all about. Long before, they told her, her mother’s father – Sister Kelly’s grandfather – had offered intercessory prayers to St. Therese of Lisieux, so that one of his own daughters would enter the convent.
That didn’t happen. But Ann Catherine Kelly did.
Sister Kelly loved life in the convent, even though at times it was a struggle.
Part of that adjustment may have been because she didn’t speak the Polish language, and the Felicians had many Polish-speaking sisters at the time, she said. Part of it may also have had to do with the time, the 1970s and early 1980s, when much about religious life was changing.
Moreover, Sister Kelly was trying to find her way as an artist, at the same time as she was trying to make her way in her vocation.
She stayed in the convent for eight years. Then, in her late 20s, she left.
Once outside the community, Sister Kelly finished her undergraduate degree, a bachelor’s in art at Buffalo State College. She also worked on her art career.
When she came back to the convent, after two years, Sister Kelly said, she felt better prepared for the challenges ahead of her.
After returning to the order, Sister Kelly enrolled at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where she finished her master of fine arts degree in 1991.
“If I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” she said recently, sitting in front of a wall of windows in her spacious Buffalo studio, which has been fashioned out of a space that used to be a laundry room in the Villa Maria convent on Doat Street. “You have to be obedient to who you are. I have to be obedient to my talents, so I can serve better.”
What Sister Kelly said she has learned, by being both inside and outside the convent at various times in her life, is that she wouldn’t be happy as a nonreligious trying to fit into the contemporary art world. Just as she likely wouldn’t be happy as a religious without the opportunity to create art.
Here, then, is alchemy: fusing two worlds, that of art and that of spiritual life, to form one life.
“I always wanted it to work together,” Sister Kelly said.
In the St. Columban Center in Derby, 18 panels of vibrantly hued glass in the chapel reveal an earlier phase of Sister Kelly’s career.
She designed the windows in 1996, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the retreat center. From right to left, the windows – which now form a backdrop to the chapel’s altar – depict scenes from nature, ranging from a sun and dove to the moon. In between are images of a tree with extended roots, human figures, a pond and waterfall, and greenery.
The windows glow in hues ranging from purples and blues to greens, yellows, reds and oranges.
The scenes draw on the Canticle of the Three Young Men, from the Old Testament, said Sister Kelly.
Monsignor James E. Wall, who was director of the center when the windows were commissioned, said the design of the windows came from the artist. “Sister Ann Therese had an idea of her own,” he said.
He said the windows are interpreted in different ways by people who see them. They are complex, and yield multiple meanings on repeated viewings.
“People get different things out of it,” said Wall. “The left side is more the feminine, the right side is the masculine. It’s the cycle of life.”
Wall said he was thrilled when he saw what Sister Kelly had done with the windows.
“Everything in it was her imagery,” he said. “I was very pleased when I saw it.”
Making stained-glass windows is a time-consuming process. An artist begins well in advance of choosing colored pieces of glass in transparent cathedral, opaque and opalescent styles.
Sister Kelly starts by designing her patterns, based on the needs the window will serve and the location in which it will be installed. Her windows for the Derby retreat house, which frame views of a lush landscape, used natural imagery to set off the scene.
At Niagara University, her series of windows commemorates achievements and history of the nursing program.
And, in two recent Junior League show houses, her windows used fused-glass techniques to add privacy and sophistication. She completed the Knox mansion project with students.
At Villa Maria, the new window designed by Sister Kelly is part of the exterior wall near the college library. She used Hunt Studio to help with phases of the project.
“When it’s architectural, it’s important to use a large studio, because of the precision” involved in the installation, Sister Kelly said. “To make a mistake is very expensive.”
The Pittsburgh studio handled cutting and leading of glass as well as installation of the window. Sister Kelly said that saved time on the project, which took her about a year.
At the college, her work was received with praise. According to one administrator, Sister Kelly’s artwork is a natural fit on the campus.
“The Felician sisters were always known for their love of art and music,” said Sister Mary Marcine Borowiak, vice president for development at the college, which was founded in 1960.
In the college window, Sister Kelly created imagery to depict the continents of the world, setting the green colors of the land masses off with blues for the oceans. In the continents, glass pieces are covered with different kinds of leaves – gingko, maple and more – to reflect native greenery that grows around the world.
“I did a lot of research into which type of leaves to use for each of the continents,” Sister Kelly said.
She sees her new window as yet another interpretation of St. Francis’ poem.
“It’s a transformational poem about the transformation of the earth,” she said. “It’s about diversity. About caring for the poor.”
Throughout her career, Sister Kelly has been a teacher. She taught as an adjunct faculty member at colleges in Western New York, including Niagara. More recently, Sister Kelly’s career took her in 2000 to New Jersey, where she held a faculty position at Felician College.
Her return to the Buffalo area, in 2010, was largely made for personal reasons. Her father died in 2005, at 73. Nowadays, her 83-year-old mother – the Catherine she was named for – struggles with some health problems that require care and support from children and family members.
Sister Kelly, who lives in Elma in a house belonging to the order along with a few other sisters, said she feels she made the right decision in coming back to Buffalo; her mother has been living in a nursing home for a year.
“It’s so important to be there when that happens,” she said.
When she returned, a new glass and art studio – in the former convent laundry – awaited her.
Filled with paint supplies, slabs of colored glass, work tables and stools, computers, books and musical instruments, the busy, open space reflects the many paths Sister Kelly’s life has taken to this point.
Her new studio enables Sister Kelly to teach and mentor students in one-on-one and small group settings – something she hopes to continue to do for years to come. She blogs about her work at www.sisterkelly.blogspot.com.
Once again, an alchemy: the combination of roles and duties, in her current place in life; the daughterly, along with that of a teacher and mentor, an artist and a member of a religious community.
“I feel that I’ll stay here, now,” Sister Kelly said.
In one corner of Buffalo, Sister Kelly’s glass art intersects in a poignant way with the life of a well-known local religious woman, Sister Karen Klimczak.
It was at St. Columba-Brigid Catholic Church in the city that Sister Kelly received a commission to create one of her biggest windows to date, a giant panel that forms the dramatic backdrop to the church’s main altar.
The window was installed in the new church that was built to replace a century-old structure that burned down in 2004.
When word came that St. Columba-Brigid would be rebuilt, Sister Klimczak – who worked at the church – and the Rev. Roy Herberger, the pastor, engaged Sister Kelly to create a stained glass window that would symbolize the rebirth and renewal of the church at Hickory and Eagle streets.
The pair held a number of meetings with Sister Kelly while the windows were being designed and crafted, Herberger recalled. Then, in 2006, Sister Klimczak was killed inside the halfway house she ran for newly released prison inmates on Grider Street.
When the new church opened in 2007, with Sister Kelly’s window as its chief work of art, the symbolism – related to both the rebirth of the parish and the slain nun – were striking.
“Sister Kelly made it what it is,” Herberger said. “She gave it the artistic inspiration.”
The window features a large central cross design, in brown glass, in front of tones of red, orange and yellow, like outreaching flames or rays of light. Blue and white tones at the top and bottom root the image and provide a contrast to the warm colors.
“The idea is almost the phoenix, rising from the ashes,” Herberger said. “So that our parish would rise from the destruction of the ashes.”
Coming in the wake of two terrible losses, the fiery, dynamic glass creation gave the members of the parish something hopeful and positive to ponder, the priest said.
That had incalculable value, he said.
As for Sister Kelly, when she thinks of her work, she thinks of some song lyrics that she heard not long ago. They seem to fit.
“I want to color the dark with the light,” the lyrics ran.
Or, as she named her new glass studio: